BAR HARBOR, Maine — For the first time in its 115-year history, the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory is launching a for-profit venture, according to lab officials.
The new company, Novo Biosciences, will focus on the therapeutic potential of drugs that help biological tissue heal and stimulate regeneration of damaged or missing body parts.
Lab officials announced the formation of the new company in a prepared statement released Tuesday. Initial work at the firm will involve research into a particular drug that, according to tests, can double the rate at which complex tissues in zebrafish regrow after amputation.
Novo Biosciences will be based at the MDI Bio Lab’s campus in the village of Salisbury Cove and will be headed by Kevin Strange, director of the lab. Voot Yin, a researcher at the lab who studies zebrafish and discovered the “dramatic” regenerative effects of the new drug, which lab officials have not publicly identified, will be the firm’s chief scientific officer, according to lab officials.
“We know now that humans and zebrafish share these same genes [that affect regeneration], Yin said in a prepared statement. “What we want to learn is why human regeneration mechanisms work so poorly. Novo Biosciences will help develop drugs that can stimulate and reactivate these mechanisms.”
Because of the proprietary nature of the endeavor, Jeri Bowers, the lab’s spokeswoman, declined on Tuesday to provide details about the science involved or to provide other specifics about how or where the discovery was made.
She said the drug was developed from a compound discovered in a shark by a scientist who has a past affiliation with MDI Bio Lab. The scientist has given the lab exclusive rights to license the drug, which in turn has been given to Novo Biosciences, she said.
Given MDI Bio Lab’s interest in regeneration and long history of research on marine organisms, testing and development of the drug seems a “natural fit” for the lab, according to Bowers.
She said some preliminary toxicity research has been done on the drug and so far nothing has come up to suggest the drug cannot be developed for clinical use.
“It’s exciting to think about the potential,” Bowers said.
An anonymous donor has given the lab some money — “tens of thousands” of dollars, according to Bowers — to help with the initial phase of founding Novo Biosciences, but additional funds from grants and venture capital is being sought to help get it off the ground. She said that, if such funding can be secured, the firm likely would hire about three or four people to assist Strange and Yin with research.
Any royalties that eventually may be earned by Novo Biosciences will go toward the lab’s research and education programs, Bowers indicated.
Strange said in the lab’s statement that President Obama indicated in his State of the Union speech last week that research into regenerative drugs is one kind of “exciting” innovation that can have significant scientific and economic impacts on the country.
“A drug that promotes healing and the growth of healthy, new tissue would be enormous benefit to human and veterinary medicine,” Strange said in the release.
Research on how some marine species regenerate body parts, and how humans compare biologically, has been a significant part of the work at MDI Bio Lab for the past several years, since the lab received a $1.6 million grant from the Department of Defense. The research has included studies on both the regeneration of limbs and of vital organs.
Founded in 1898 as a seasonal lab in Harpswell, MDI Bio Lab moved to Mount Desert Island in 1921. In recent decades, the lab has shifted from being primarily seasonal to a year-round research institution, increasing the number of its year-round employees from nine to approximately 50.