Acceleration Lab Program plays role in successful public launch of biotech firm

Five years ago, the co-founders of biotech start-up ZS Pharma, were developing a drug out of a lab provided by UNT Health Science Center.

"Although we believed it had all the makings of a successful project, until you prove it, you don’t know if you really have something," said Alvaro Guillem, PhD, co-founder of ZS Pharma.

Today, Dr. Guillem and co-founder Jeff Keyser, PhD, do indeed have something.

In June, the company successfully debuted on Wall Street as the first biotech IPO in Texas since 2000. The drug, designed to treat hyperkalemia, a potentially life-threatening kidney disease caused by excess potassium, now is in clinical trials. It’s forecast to hit the market by 2016.  

In a world where it can take decades to move a drug from bench to bedside, this biotech tale is being told in warp speed. And UNT Health Science Center had a part in making it all possible, Dr. Guillem said.

"Early on, having offices, access to conference rooms, a lab and even an address where we could receive mail made it possible for us to do all of our work," he said. "The University’s Acceleration Lab Program made a significant difference that in retrospect may have been a step among many, but an important step nonetheless."

Since 2006, UNT Health Science Center’s Office of Research Development and Commercialization and TECH Fort Worth, a non-profit technology incubator, have worked in partnership to bring new technologies to the market.

Firms get a boost from the UNTHSC Accelerator Lab Program along with the Executives-in-Residence, who act as mentors and offer advice from their years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry.

Taking research to the marketplace can be an arduous process, said Lawrence "Joe" Allred, PhD, Associate Vice President for Research and Innovation at UNTHSC.

"Commercialization is the fulfillment of the research promise," he said. "Whether you’re talking about a molecule or a medical device it has to go through a rigorous process before entering the economy."

That process was made easier for ZS Pharma because no other drug existed to effectively treat hyperkalemia.

"This is something that will address a public health need," Dr. Keyser said. "Really there’s nothing quite like it."

The drug is well-tolerated and has been shown to safely remove potassium from the blood.

"Our medicine is very efficacious and unique in its ability to target potassium," Dr. Keyser said. "It’s very precise in that we know exactly how much potassium to take out."

Playing a part in getting this drug on the path to patients has been rewarding for everyone involved, Dr. Allred said.

"This is going to be a real advancement in the ability to treat people with this very dangerous condition," he said.  "We are proud that the UNTHSC Acceleration Lab Program has been able to assist in ZS Pharma’s success."

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