Bioscience

New Arizona Company Seeks Valley Fever Cure

November 3, 2008

By Flinn Foundation

[Source: University of Arizona Communications] – A University of Arizona-supported company is working to cure valley fever, a lung disease that affects as many as 150,000 people in the southwest U.S. every year, yet is virtually unknown in the rest of the country.

Valley Fever Solutions Inc. is backed by a broad coalition that includes the UA, the BIO5 Institute, C-Path, a New York-based foundation and private donors. The company is testing nikkomycin Z (nik Z), the first of a new class of drugs that could potentially kill the fungus that causes valley fever.

While other treatments inhibit the valley fever’s growth and encourage the immune system to keep it in check, none of them destroy the fungus entirely. For most patients this isn’t an issue as valley fever’s flu-like symptoms are so mild for them that they don’t even seek medical attention.

Occasionally, more severe cases of valley fever can lead to pneumonia, osteomyelitis and meningitis, sometimes with fatal results. Those with weakened immune systems often are most at risk.

“If we can eradicate this disease, then the severe complications won’t happen,” said Dr. John Galgiani, chief medical officer for VF Solutions, director of the UA’s Valley Fever Center for Excellence in the College of Medicine and a BIO5 member. “If you treat a thousand valley fever infections you might, for example, prevent three cases of meningitis.” Gagliani said. Even mild infections have an impact because they result in days lost from work and other activities.

Sixty percent of all U.S. valley fever cases occur in Phoenix, Tucson and the corridor along Interstate 10 that connects the two cities. “We have the expertise to do clinical trials in Arizona because this is a very important and common disease here,” Galgiani said. “Valley fever is our problem, and we need to look to ourselves to solve it.”

Nik Z is now in phase I drug safety trials sponsored by the UA. VF Solutions aims to move the drug from the laboratory to the marketplace. “You can’t have a new therapy unless you create a commercial product. With the formation of VF Solutions we can interest investors and write small business grants,” Galgiani said.

The company has already obtained a Science and Translational Technology Research grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund pharmacology studies that will help design future clinical trials. The first phase of the grant is worth more than $100,000, with the potential for an additional $700,000.

VF Solutions CEO David Larwood is now working on his fourth startup company, two of which were taken public. The company also draws expertise from the UA chemistry, biochemistry and pharmacy faculty, as well as other experts and clinicians. Some of them have been working to develop a valley fever drug before the company was formed.

In 2006 the Food and Drug Administration awarded Orphan Drug Status for the project and in 2007 funded the first nik Z clinical trials that are now under way.

Having nik Z’s development and possible manufacture in Arizona also brings dollars to the state. “This response to a local problem could become part of the growing Arizona biotechnology initiative,” Galgiani said.

Valley Fever Awareness Week is Nov 10-16. The public is invited to a public forum, titled “Learn About Valley Fever: Ask the Doctors your Questions” on Sunday, Nov. 16, from 1 to 4 p.m. at DuVal Auditorium, University Medical Center, 1501 N. Campbell Ave. in Tucson.
Featured UA doctors include Neil Ampel, John Galgiani, Susan Hoover and David Nix.