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New Drug ‘Pipeline’ Runs Under the Sea

Sirenas Marine Discovery Inc. is in an enviable position — it’s actually turning away investors as it turns to the ocean’s depths as a promising source for potential new drugs.

The La Jolla-based biotech startup was founded by Phil Baran, a 36-year-old scientist at The Scripps Research Institute researcher and a 2013 MacArthur “genius award” fellow. Baran politely declined an offer for more cash when he was approached by potential investors after speaking recently at an event held by the Jewish Federation of San Diego County.

“Thanks, but I think we’re good,” he told one inquirer.

Perhaps very good.

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Sirenas is on the verge of signing a “big deal” with a West Coast company to develop a line of therapeutics, the company said, though Baran didn’t disclose which one or how much money is involved. Along with a recent $291,941 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease to develop a new HIV therapy, Baran said his company is in good financial standing and is looking to expand its employee count.

Privately held Sirenas, which is less than a year old and employs 10 people, has been operating on about $5 million in startup funding from a New York City-based global investment company.

Diving Deep for Answers

Baran described the company’s vision as looking “to harvest the innate wisdom of the ocean, then using this wisdom for the greater good.”

Sirenas is not the first to explore the aquatic for drug discovery. AZT, the breakthrough HIV drug of the 1980s, was derived from a sea sponge. Johnson & Johnson’s anti-tumor drug Yondelis was extracted from a sea squirt.

The rationale for such exploration is that reef ecosystems — which are ancient, complex and competitive — have evolved nuanced and potent chemicals that are ideal starting points for discovering raw materials that lead to new drugs. The defense mechanisms of a simple ocean sponge, for instance, can be studied and tapped for its ability to ward off diseases like HIV, bacterial infection and cancer.

“I don’t know it’s as intertwined as it is, but the chemicals made by very simple creatures can coincide with the rather complicated biological pathways of some cancers,” Baran said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, roughly 95 percent of the ocean has yet to be explored, with exotic and hard-to-reach places such as deep-sea vents and seabed sediments barely documented. But with advances in oceanography, scientists are able to “bioprospect” for new drugs.

Replicating Nature a Tough Task

Though countless chemicals could be found in the oceans, they are often very difficult to mass produce. Penicillin, for instance, was easy to scale up because it’s derived from a fast-growing fungus. Sea sponges are much harder to cultivate, and their excretions are harder to gather. So the pharmaceutical industry is looking to organic chemistry companies like Sirenas to facilitate the process.

Sirenas is negotiating a deal with a large pharmaceutical company, under which that company will study Sirenas’ extracts to determine whether they have medicinal value. In addition to probing the sea for new chemical compounds, Sirenas has a proprietary method to isolate and identify the ones that will be most useful in treating diseases, Baran said. The company also has the know-how to scale up.

“We’ll be able to provide a one-stop shop to get Ferrari-level quality on the chemicals, the ability to replicate them and be a direct supplier to the pharmaceutical industry,” Baran said.

(Note: This article has been changed since publication to reflect corrected information regarding Sirenas Marine Discovery Inc.’s startup funding and potential deals with other companies.)

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