Chinese drug firm, SFU spinoff partner on drug therapy

April 28, 2005, vol. 33, no. 1
By Carol Thorbes

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A Simon Fraser University spinoff company that is harnessing the good in bacteria has partnered with a drug developer and manufacturer in China to develop a novel drug therapy for psoriasis.

Welichem Biotech Inc., a Burnaby-based biopharmaceutical company, has attracted Celestial Pharmaceuticals of China as an investor and research partner because of its transformation of worms' bacterial secretions into wonder compounds.

“Skin disease is a significant problem in China due in part to environmental factors,” says John Webster, SFU emeritus professor of biology, and Welichem president and co-founder.

“Celestial approached Welichem because it is confident in our business and science. Our partner will further research and develop our compounds into marketable drugs in China faster than we can here because of the different regulatory regimes. Welichem's parallel work will benefit from the knowledge and the data gleaned from Celestial's drug trials.”

While doing his doctoral research under Webster, Genhui Chen discovered that a bacterium's symbiotic relationship with its host makes it a do-gooder in medicine.

The host microscopic worms release the bacteria to kill insects for food. The bacteria secrete substances that have antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and anti-proliferation properties. The discovery led Webster, Chen and one of Webster's post-doctoral researchers, Jason Li, to found Welichem.

Continuing to collaborate with SFU researchers and employ co-op students, the trio turned this bacterium's secretions into compounds that target and deactivate malfunctioning T-cells—the cause of psoriasis, a common, debilitating skin irritation. These remarkable compounds modulate the human immune system so that it can potentially overcome, or at least control, psoriasis. The family of compounds to which they belong has potentially other, significant immune modulating applications.

“Celestial has conducted a comprehensive series of tests and has shown Welichem's lead drug candidate to be safe and effective against psoriasis,” says Chen, Welichem's VP-research. “With luck, patients who suffer from psoriasis will soon experience relief from these piles of inflamed, irritating skin with a few applications of a cream.”

Welichem still has to take the compound through a series of tests and obtain regulatory approval to undertake clinical testing of its compounds in North America.

Li, Welichem's executive vice-president, sees a huge demand for these compounds at the end of the commercialization rainbow.

“Currently there are no economical or side-effect free drugs to treat psoriasis, a condition that has increased three to five fold in the general population since the 1960s,” notes Li. “Many existing drugs only treat the symptoms rather than the cause.”
SFU has shares in Welichem, collaborates with the company on chemistry experiments and has several co-op and other SFU students working in its labs.

Elizabeth Koch, a 4th year co-op student in biological sciences, is testing and analyzing new compounds at Welichem to target cancer cells. Says Koch, “Considering I am still completing my bachelor of science, I feel very fortunate to be doing research at a company that is making major discoveries.”

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