A University of Hawaii researcher hopes that fluorescent proteins she discovered in box jellyfish abundant in Hawaii waters might be able to provide a better, noninvasive way of diagnosing diseases such as cancer.
Angel Yanagihara, a researcher in the Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine, discovered and patented about 40 physalia fluorescent proteins that will be tested to see whether they are "active" and able to be used as a diagnostic tool in the $2.5 billion-a-year market for these proteins.
The Upside Fund, a venture capital fund managed by the University of Hawaii Foundation, Hawaii Strategic Development Corp. and the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii is investing $100,000 in the research.
Protekai Inc., formed by Omar Sultan, will seek to commercialize intellectual property of the research on the proteins, which could create powerful new biomedical research and diagnostic tools, according to the University of Hawaii Foundation.
"It’s really a very exciting discovery that’s been sitting on a shelf at UH," Yanagihara said. "The full patent was issued, but we didn’t have the money for the next step to sequence the protein. This gives us the funds to go after full sequence of genes, which is necessary to get to a point where we can use it as a diagnostic tool in medicine."
Intellectual property developed by UH faculty is an inadequately tapped resource with enormous potential for economic benefit, Yanagihara said.
There are at least a dozen projects at UH that are relatively unknown that could potentially be the stimulus of new startups throughout the state, said fund manager Barry Weinman, managing director and co-founding partner of Allegis Capital LLC.
"UH has a lot of research dollars that go in and then don’t come out for commercialization," he said. "What we’re trying to do with the Upside Fund is change that economics. That doesn’t happen overnight, but you have to have a vision. This is really a big opportunity that the state has been missing."
By comparison, Stanford University receives about $650 million in annual grants and $75 million in licensing fees and royalties from its research, while UH gets about $420 million in research grants and between $300,000 and $500,000 in licensing fees each year, according to Weinman.
Hawaii has between 20 and 50 locally well-known medical biotech companies, though the industry has never quite been able to build the momentum needed to attract enough researchers and biotech companies to create a world-class life sciences center in the Pacific.
If the novel fluorescent proteins are useful in diagnostic testing, the fund will seek to raise another $3 million to $5 million from the venture capital community to take it to the commercial market.
The research is promising for a variety of reasons, including the uniqueness of the jellyfish to certain climates in Hawaii, Weinman said.
"It will benefit the industry by giving it a lot more credibility than it currently has and will show big pharmaceutical companies that research can be done at UH that has real value in the commercial world," Weinman said.
The Upside Fund is soliciting investors and donations for the new venture. The fund’s management includes Weinman; Jim Lally, retired partner of the Silicon Valley venture capital fund Valley, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; and Scott Wo, chief investment officer at C.S. Wo.