Deal includes patents on the nell-1 gene, and related treatments are expected to restore tissue mass and function.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) contractor UT-Battelle exclusively licensed patents on inventions based on the nell-1 gene to NellOne Therapeutics. The firm is developing protein therapies that leverage nell-1’s cell-signaling pathway, which controls tissue growth and maturation in mammalian organs.

The foundation for this therapy is research performed by Cymbeline Culiat, Ph.D., who, as an ORNL systems genetics researcher, identified the role that the nell-1 pathway plays in tissue growth and maturation. Dr. Culiat is now lead researcher at NellOne Therapeutics and is working to translate her discoveries into a therapy that restores both mass and function to damaged human tissues such as heart and skeletal muscle. Other therapies, like stem cell treatments, have succeeded in triggering tissue formation but fall short in restoring the actual function of the tissue, according to NellOne Therapeutics. Research is focusing on applications for rebuilding cardiac muscle and is being conducted at ORNL under Dr. Culiat’s leadership.

“In the technology-transfer process of the Nell-1 project, I learned very quickly that to transform my basic science discoveries into viable and useful technology would be difficult and complex, requiring much expertise not only in science and technology but also in such vital areas as business, law, clinical aspects, and communications,” remarks Dr. Culiat.

NellOne was spun out of the Department of Energy laboratory. Battelle Ventures, with its Knoxville-based affiliate fund, Innovation Valley Partners (IVP), provided $1.5 million in funding in 2008.

“NellOne is a virtual company, dedicated to the development of intellectual property and moving into a clinical setting,” says Tracy Warren, NellOne CEO and Battelle Ventures general partner. It currently operates out of the IVP office. She believes that the company has completed sufficient proof-of-principle experiments but “is still a very early-stage company, and while its technology has some history, the application of that technology is still in its infancy.”

Battelle Ventures and IVP reportedly have a combined $255 million—$220 million and $35 million, respectively—to create and accelerate early-stage technologies.

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