As UC Davis professor and veterinarian Robert Brosnan headed toward the campus conference center one evening four years ago, he had one thing on his mind: knocking people out—both literally and figuratively.
Over the next several days at the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy, Brosnan finally found an audience that understood the wow factor of his research, and could help him with the network, advice and connections to bring his passion and technology to life.
Brosnan, an expert in veterinary anesthesia in theDepartment of Surgical and Radiological Sciences at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, has developed patent-pending technology that has identified agents in several novel classes that could lead to better, safer, and more cost-effective general anesthetics for use in operating rooms and surgical centers. His research focuses on cardiovascular and respiratory effects of anesthetics and on the mechanisms of anesthetic action.
General anesthetics have been used in surgery for 170 years, yet how the inhaled drugs work is one of the great mysteries of neuroscience—and a pharmaceutical field with plenty of room for innovation.
In fact, in 2009 a major professional group issued nine recommendations to lower the rate of anesthetic-related complications. One of the recommendations was to make advances in the science of anesthetic drugs.
The first general anesthetic used in people was ether. More than a century and a half later, anesthesiologists are still using similar ether anesthetics that have been modified to make the drugs not flammable when they are delivered to patients. However, these drugs have substantial downsides.
“These are drugs that have some significant side effects, so there’s certainly a need to develop new agents,” Brosnan said of the current choices available to physicians and veterinarians.
“Our laboratory has identified what we think is a plausible molecular mechanism of action for these drugs,” Brosnan explained. “This has allowed us to make predictions regarding new anesthetic agents that nobody has ever studied before. These inhaled drugs have novel receptor effects that appear to cause fewer side effects and provide beneficial actions not available with current drugs.”
Brosnan’s approach allows him to test new agents on specific receptors, looking to minimize negative anesthetic impacts on the heart, lungs and other major systems, leading to drug candidates that are likely to be safer and decrease postoperative complications and costs.
One Health—One Medicine
At the Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy in 2012, Brosnan met UC Davis alumnus Mark Holman, a veteran entrepreneur and business owner in Davis, who was serving as a mentor. Holman was “knocked out” by Brosnan’s description of his research, which could benefit hundreds of millions of human and animal patients.
The fact that Brosnan is a veterinary, not a human medical doctor, and that he is pushing the envelope across both fields, underscores the potential of more cross-disciplinary teamwork. The goal of the global One Health movement is to forge co-equal, inclusive collaborations between physicians, veterinarians, dentists, nurses and other scientific-health and environmentally related disciplines.
Holman did his due diligence and interviewed many medical industry leaders and researchers before forming a startup, dubbed Expanesthetics. The company licensed the intellectual property from the university, recruited clinical and scientific advisory boards, elected a board of directors and has brought investors aboard to pave a lab-to-market path.
Brosnan, himself an alumnus who earned his DVM and Ph.D. from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, says he probably wouldn’t have been able to pursue a business around his research without Holman.
“I think the discovery would probably have died without somebody like Mark to help bring that forward,” Brosnan said.
At the Gate of Big Pharma
The Davis-based startup is wading into an entrenched, multibillion dollar global market for general anesthetics dominated by large pharmaceutical and medical services companies. Holman and Brosnan are undaunted, confident they can develop better alternatives with the help of the know-how of their strong UC Davis networks.
“This is an Aggie startup, through and through,” Holman said. “We are working to solve fundamental problems that have existed in anesthesia for almost 200 years”
Holman has the business experience and startup street cred. He’s advised other ventures he met through the Child Family Institute, including the Angels on Campus program, a proving ground for entrepreneurs to hone their pitches to investors.
“Companies like Expanesthetics, and there are dozens now, are exactly the reason we created and continue to grow our entrepreneurship academies,” said Professor Andrew Hargadon, faculty director of the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The institute has trained more than 1,200 researchers in academies and fellows programs that focus on helping them bring their innovations to market.
“They represent the interdisciplinary vision of this university—scientists working across fields and with industry to turn their leading scientific research into practical and world-changing applications.”
Using his process, funded in part by a $1 million National Institute of Health grant, Brosnan has since continued to do screening tests in his lab. He also was awarded a competitive proof of concept grant from the University of California. He is focusing on compounds likely to be new drug candidates, all of which will need further research and development. To help with that, Holman has raised over $1 million from private investors, many of whom are affiliated with UC Davis. And Holman is growing Expanesthetics’ staff, recently bringing aboard UC Davis biomedical engineering graduate Shane Austin ‘14.
“Surgical anesthesia in the 21st century should look completely different than it did in the 1840s,” said Holman. “Based on new scientific discoveries and inventions licensed exclusively to Expanesthetics, we are working to expand the choice of general anesthetics available for anesthesia professionals to use in order to improve patient outcomes and simultaneously reduce the overall cost of anesthetic delivery.”
As chairman and CEO, Holman has assembled an experienced board that includes Dr. Claire Pomeroy, president of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation and former head of the UC Davis Health System; Robert Erwin, president of iBio; UC Davis alumnus Dr. Todd Strumwasser ‘77, senior vice president of operations for Dignity Health’s Bay Area Service Area; and Rick Fowler, an experienced finance and operations executive with many UC Davis connections.
Brosnan chairs Expanesthetics’ Scientific Advisory Board and hopes Expanesthetics will attract much-needed research funding since anesthetics is a woefully underfunded field. While he has chosen not to take an equity stake in the company, he would receive proceeds from royalties on the intellectual property should it eventually generate revenue.
“There is a lot of room for improvement in the drugs that we use,” said Brosnan. Holman is optimistic and prepared for the long haul, including the prospect of multiple clinical trials and reviews to apply to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to begin testing on humans. It can take more than a decade and over $350 million to get a new drug from the laboratory onto the pharmacy shelf.
To help scale the startup, Holman’s first full-time hire was Vice President of Operations Shane Austin, a biomedical engineering
graduate from UC Davis. Expanesthetics also five UC Davis students in part-time roles. Holman plans to broaden the internship program and bring on more full-time specialists as the company expands its research programs internationally, applies for grant funding, and manages the process of clinical trial planning.
Hargadon said the prospect for more new ventures like Expanesthetics is one of reasons the School of Veterinary Medicine now co-sponsors the institute’s Biomedical and Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy (BMEA). The next three-day BMEA will be held July 11–July 13. Applications will be accepted through Friday, June 10.
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