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Patrick Springer, Published November 12 2010

3 area biotech firms receive grants

Three Red River Valley biotechnology firms – Aldevron, Altravax and NovaDigm Therapeutics – have received $244,000 each in federal grants to develop new medicines.

The grants were awarded under the therapeutic discovery project, part of the Patient Protection and Affordability Care Act, better known as the health reform law.

A quick rundown:

  • Aldevron, based in Fargo, in partnership with Jenomic of Carmel, Calif., is working on a new drug to treat lung cancer. In a preliminary trial by Jenomic, the new therapy extended survival three times longer than the standard therapy for advanced-stage cancer.

  • Altravax, based in Fargo with research labs in Sunnyvale, Calif., got a grant to support clinical research for a therapeutic vaccine for Hepatitis B infections, which currently have no cure.

  • NovaDigm Therapeutics, based in Grand Forks, got a grant for clinical testing of a vaccine to prevent serious fungal and bacterial infections, including strains resistant to antibiotics.

    Collectively, company representatives said, the grants will help develop promising “biological therapies” that, if successful, will help foster the Red River Valley’s efforts to become a center for vaccines and other biotech industry firms.

    “This will help move the technology into the clinic in the U.S.,” Michael Chambers, chief executive officer of Aldevron, said of the drug developed by Jenomic to fight lung cancer.

    The drug, already tested in China, is being manufactured in Fargo for clinical trials in the United States.

    Altravax plans to start clinical trials to test its therapeutic vaccine for chronic Hepatitis B, which is incurable and common in the developing world.

    “We’re thrilled with the continued grant success that Altravax has seen,” said James Burgum of Arthur Ventures in Fargo, the lead investor in the firm. “It’s going to be critical in getting us through the clinical trial.”

    “This federal funding will help advance our novel therapeutic vaccine that has the potential to significantly reduce health care costs due to this chronic disease and generate new, high-tech jobs here in Fargo,” said Dr. Len Ruiz, Altravax’s chief executive officer.

    Tim Cooke, chief executive officer of NovaDigm Therapeutics, said the grant will help his firm test its vaccine to prevent infections.

    “We’re just ready to enter our first clinical trial,” he said. The tests will determine whether the vaccine is safe and monitor responses in healthy adults.

    “It’s going to be done right here in Fargo by Cetero,” formerly PRACS Institute, Cooke said. “We like to keep things in the community.”

    NovaDigm Ther­a­peu­tics’ vaccine is based on research that originated at the University of California in Los Angeles but now is conducted on the campus of the University of North Dakota, where the firm has seven employees.

    The firm was attracted by the Red River Valley Research Corridor, an initiative launched by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and also is one of the firms working to get a foothold in the burgeoning biotech sector.

    As more firms take root in the area, it has the potential to develop a “cluster” that will in turn help draw other firms.

    “I think we’ve got a nugget of a cluster,” Cooke said.

    Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522