Flinn Foundation awards $1 million in grants to promote groundbreaking translational research

April 15, 2022

By brianpowell

The first treatment for West Nile virus. A robotic device for children with cerebral palsy. A universal antivenom for snake bites.

These goals emerge from three of the 10 translational research projects receiving funding from the Flinn Foundation in 2022 as part of a program to advance new products and services to improve patient care.

Each of the competitively selected projects will receive a $100,000 grant over the next 18 months. Two of the most successful projects may receive up to an additional $100,000 over the following year.

The 10 grants were awarded to Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, Translational Genomics Research Institute, and University of Arizona. The four institutions are collaborating on their projects with researchers from Banner Health, Barrow Neurological Institute, Carondelet Neurological Institute, Mayo Clinic Arizona, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix.

“These projects address compelling clinical needs and have significant potential to turn bench results into viable products or systems impacting patients in Arizona and beyond,” said Mary O’Reilly, Ph.D., Flinn Foundation vice president, bioscience research programs. “The program is designed to help research teams better position themselves to launch a new startup company or seek partners to license their discoveries.”

This year represents a significant expansion of the Flinn Foundation Seed Grants to Promote Translational Research in Precision Medicine Initiative, which helps to advance the goals of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap. Previously, the program had awarded at most seven grants in a single year.

This is the seventh round of the seed grants program. Since 2013, the Flinn Foundation has awarded 51 seed grants totaling about $6.3 million.

2022 Seed Grants

Arizona State University: Target to Trial Rapid Immunotherapy Development for West Nile Virus

There are currently no specific treatments for West Nile or related diseases and no therapies at any clinical phase of the development timeline. This project will fund an accelerated platform for biologic drug development, operating at 100 times the scale for a fraction of the cost of current methods, which could make a treatment for West Nile feasible and set a new standard of development and affordability for biologic therapies globally. Principal Investigator: Benjamin Bartelle, Ph.D.

Arizona State University with Barrow Neurological Institute and University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix: Biomarkers for Clinical Diagnosis of ALS Patients

The successful completion of the proposed work will enable translation of biomarkers to diagnose ALS patients in the early stage of their disease course, surpassing current capabilities and offering the first means of prognosis. The lack of clinical options has led to delayed diagnosis for upwards of a year. This new approach introduces, for the first time, an effective measure for establishing a clinical diagnosis for ALS, which could improve therapeutic efficacy. Principal Investigator: Barbara Smith, Ph.D.

Arizona State University with Mayo Clinic Arizona: Tattoos for Endoscopic Imaging

Effective surgical intervention in the gastrointestinal tract requires easy identification and visualization of diseased regions. This project develops a new generation of endoscopic tattoo inks that demonstrate precise spot sizes, minimal inflammation, high retention, and low loss from target tissue, such as colon. It possesses the capability of visualization by multiple clinical imaging technologies, including magnetic resonance imaging. Principal Investigator: Kaushal Rege, Ph.D. 

Northern Arizona University with Phoenix Children’s Hospital: Wearable Robotic Gait Therapy for At-Home Mobility Care

The project aims to develop, test, and commercialize the world’s first pediatric wearable Robotic Ankle Assist Device for children with cerebral palsy. The researchers will adopt a user-centric design approach to create a reliable, effective and safe assistive device suitable for personal use by adolescents and adults, leading to increased levels of activity. Current approaches for treating cerebral palsy do not improve mobility over time, and many children lose the ability to walk as adults. Principal Investigator: Zachary Lerner, Ph.D. 

Translational Genomics Research Institute: Development and Commercialization of a Blood-Based Assay for Disease Monitoring in Patients with Pancreatic Cancer

Roughly 18% of pancreatic cancer patients lack a suitable blood-based marker to identify whether their current treatment is working or to track when effective treatments stop working. The extracellular-vesicle based marker the research team is developing could be used for tracking all pancreatic cancer patients. This will be a valuable tool for those patients without elevated levels of CA19-9 and could ultimately be a more accurate marker for disease burden and clinical benefit.  Principal Investigator: Daniel Von Hoff, M.D. 

University of Arizona: Ruthenium-Based Antivenom Development

This project hopes to developa universal antivenom and create a commercial medicinal product. Most snake antivenoms are polyclonal antibodies, are specific to only one venom, and require the venom itself to manufacture it. The symptoms of snake bite are caused by the myriad of enzymes and other substances contained in the snake venom. This laboratory has demonstrated that a novel family of chemicals—a universal antivenom—are capable of inhibiting snake venom by binding to key areas of these enzymes. Principal Investigator: Vance Nielsen, M.D. 

University of Arizona with Banner Health: Virtual Portfolio for Skull Based Surgical Training

This project team has recently developed a mixed-reality neurorhinologic (MR-NRS) surgical simulator and the teaching steps and software to train residents and fellows. The goal of the project is to develop a library of patient-specific skull base tumors, in which trainees can utilize the MR-NRS simulator to learn about the critical anatomical structures of the case, interact in an immersive environment with the surgical instruments and tools, and test educational methods to prepare for these cases and be exposed to complications prior to encountering skull-base surgeries in the real world. Principal Investigator: Eugene Chang, M.D.

University of Arizona with Carondelet Neurological Institute and University of Pittsburgh: Improved Stroke Management through Medical Imaging and Artificial Intelligence

A major setback in acquiring CT perfusion scans in stroke patients is the substantial gap in the availability of equipment and facilities, which are not available at smaller hospitals and clinics. The project team will build and validate a hybrid imaging and artificial-intelligence algorithm to estimate regional brain perfusion in stroke patients and provide tissue viability measures. The technology will reduce time to diagnosis and reduce rate of patient transfers to comprehensive stroke centers for rural and community hospitals. Principal Investigator: Kaveh Laskari, Ph.D. 

University of Arizona with Florida International University: Oxytocin Analgesics Without Side Effects for Opioid Use Disorder

The introduction of oxytocin (OT) glycosides into clinical use would allow for the treatment of moderate-to-severe pain without use of opioids and their undesired side effects. This project team proposes that the OT-based drugs can be provided to a patient following dental procedures and/or outpatient surgical procedures in the form of an intranasal inhaler that could be administered as needed to control pain. Patients treated with OT-based drugs are not expected to engage in drug-seeking behavior following their use. Principal Investigator: Robin Polt, Ph.D. 

University of Arizona with New York University: GABA Transaminase Inhibitors for Type 2 Diabetes

Current Type 2 diabetes therapies maintain glycemic control in only 36% of patients. Fatty liver is associated with the severity of diabetes and pre-diabetes. The investigators have worked to understand how fatty liver communicates with the rest of the body to cause insulin resistance and elevated blood insulin concentrations and have shown that fat accumulation in the liver increases liver GABA release. By targeting the cause of elevated blood glucose, insulin, and insulin resistance, the project hopes to develop two highly effective, specific, novel GABA-T inhibitors to treat Type 2 diabetes. Principal Investigator: Ben Renquist, Ph.D.