Huddle: Meet the Saint John Researcher Helping Bring Life-Saving Drugs to Market Faster

 A Saint John-based researcher’s startup is helping get life-saving research to market faster – and it’s getting some national recognition too.

Dr. Alli Murugesan is the founder of BioHuntress Therapeutics Inc, an incubator that encourages and supports commercialization of academic health research.

Murugesan, who is also a senior scientist at the Reiman cancer research laboratory at the University of New Brunswick, says the idea for BioHuntress came from her time working on her postdoctorate. She noticed there was a lot of amazing research being done, but it wasn’t going beyond the lab.

“I had this lingering question. Why do inventions that are made in the academic lab not taken further by academics for commercialization?” says Murugesan.

“It has always been a strong desire to be that nexus as an incubator for commercializing ideas that are born in the academic labs. That’s the main reason that drove me to found my own startup company.”

Founded in 2016, BioHuntress helps academic researchers take their finding to market much more quickly. Murugesan says often a lot of researchers don’t go beyond publishing their findings.

“What you see in the classical academia, it’s mainly focused on publishing research findings. The value only reaches only to the person or the team that publishes the paper,” she says. “I believe the true value for me, is when that hard work translates into a drug or product that can benefit the larger society.”

Even if researchers do want to see their work commercialized and turned into a drug, many don’t know where to start. They often don’t have the time or the resources or the means. That’s where BioHuntress comes in.

“At BioHuntress, we’d be able to identify those ideas that can be commercialized and help the researchers to articular value propositions, connect with key partners, identify channels to release a drug. That was one of the ways you can cut the time because researchers don’t know or do not want to spend the time to go and reach out for all of these resources,” says Murugesan.

“For certain products, BioHuntress would be the industry partner and attract funding to advance the research project and help the researchers build up the product to complete animal testing, or even go further to phase-one studies.”

BioHuntress’s first breakthrough is a patent-filed, nature-inspired chemical compound, co-invented by Murugesan in collaboration with medical oncologist and UNB professor Dr. Tony Reiman and Université de Moncton associate professor Dr. Mohamed Touaibia.

The compound is capable of targeting and killing blood cancer cells, including those that have grown resistant to chemotherapy. After proving the drug’s effectiveness in the lab, the company is now seeking investment and industry funding to begin animal testing and phase one clinical trials in people.

“The lead compound showed superior treatment potential than the current existing chemotherapeutics by killing even chemo-resistant blood cancer cells,” says Murugesan.

Murugesan’s business-minded approach to research and BioHuntress has received national recognition. This week she will receive the Mitacs Global Impact Entrepreneur Award. Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 19 years. As a former Mitacs postdoctoral fellow herself, Murugesan says being recognized is a big honour.

I kind of feel that after my daughter’s birth, I think my startup BioHuntress is the next biggest energy that came from me,” she says. “It’s my baby.”

BioHuntress is currently negotiating to establish its incubator within the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus, right beside the Saint John Regional Hositpal. The strategic location would help more researchers with commercialization, with a focus on promoting therapies for blood cancers and bone diseases.

“During my postdoctoral fellowship, I had this urge to commercialize. We had to learn commercializing skills, find resources, opportunities and secure funding from all different places,” says Murugesan. “My vision for BioHuntress is being the incubator offering all of this to researchers by being just next door to their laboratory. I find that the juxtaposition will benefit both the company as well as the researchers beautifully.”

Ultimately, Murugesan wants BioHuntress to help start a change in the research community.

“The time to market, it’s always been a business terminology and my question is could it be embraced comfortably by the research fraternity. The BioHuntress vision is basically to bring a cultural shift in the mindset of academia toward research and their perspective to see value different.”

By: Chersie Letson