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UCalgary researcher's work on dry eye catches gaze of pharmaceutical company

Novartis licenses form of lubricating protein for ophthalmic use
May 10, 2017
A protein co-discovered by University of Calgary researcher Tannin Schmidt has potential for multiple therapeutic uses, including the treatment of dry eyes. University of Calgary photo

A protein co-discovered by University of Calgary researcher Tannin Schmidt has potential for multiple therapeutic uses, including the treatment of dry eyes. University of Calgary photo

What started as researcher Tannin Schmidt’s project as a way to treat arthritis has caught the eye of a big pharmaceutical company. What they are interested in isn’t for arthritis, but for dry eyes.

Novartis now has the exclusive rights to the patents, and protein, for application/treatments of eye diseases (outside of Europe) from Lubris BioPharma, a bio pharmaceutical company Schmidt co-founded after his colleagues David Sullivan and Ben Sullivan invented this novel application for the protein lubricin.

Lubricin was first discovered in the knee in the 1970s as a joint lubricant, playing an important role in protecting surfaces from damage and wear. Schmidt co-discovered this same protein in the eye right before he left grad school at University of California, San Diego, and he and co-discoverers then filed the initial provisional patent.    

“I’m incredibly excited about the partnership with Novartis,” says Schmidt, associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Schulich School of Engineering, Centre for Bioengineering Research and Education.

“We’ve been working on this for more than a decade. There’s been lots of ups and downs, and it has been an especially intense last year.”

Lubricin has huge potential beyond dry eyes

In an initial human trial, lubricin treatment showed statistically significant improvement in both the signs and symptoms of dry eye, something he says was “a really impressive result; most dry eye products are unable to improve both signs and symptoms in the same study. 

“It’s unique in that lubricin is naturally occurring, and our company Lubris was able to make/express the recombinant form using a cell line transfected with the lubricin gene to make human lubricin,” adds Schmidt.

Dry eye disease is a common condition affecting an estimated 25 per cent of Canadians. And lubricin has a wide range of applications.

“Lubricin has the potential to help millions of patients across multiple indications," says Harry Barnett, Lubris's executive chairman. "The Novartis in-licence represents a significant achievement for Lubris as we continue to execute on our strategy for bringing this protein to market in multiple therapeutic areas including dry eye, xerostomia, osteoarthritis, and other age- and inflammation-related conditions.”

What’s next for 'Mother Nature’s lubricant'

In the coming years there will be an effort with scaling up protein production with hopes of filing an IND (Investigational New Drug) application with the FDA to enable clinical trials of the treatment to people in the U.S.

When will a treatment hit the market? “Not until that the critical Phase 3 trial happens, which is a larger trial that evaluates the effectiveness of the treatment compared to the current gold standard, and FDA gives approval,” says Schmidt.

The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy is focused on developing solutions for pressing health challenges in disease and injury prevention, diagnosis and treatments. We are also applying systems engineering principles to continuously improve the health system.