Screenshot from Exscien’s website

Louisville-based biotech company Exscien has secured a $3.7 million grant with which it hopes to get closer to developing treatments for heart failure.

The three-year federal research grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute will help the company study the effects of a proprietary protein on heart disease. Exscien leaders plan to eventually license the protein to pharmaceutical companies, which could commercialize drugs to treat progressive heart failure, a condition that affects more than 20 million people worldwide.

Ker Ferguson

CEO Ker Ferguson told Insider Louisville the company has created a three-part fusion protein, a “platform technology” with lots of potential applications. The company’s protein has three major components:

  1. A mechanism that allows the protein to enter the cell.
  2. A targeting system. When the DNA of mitochondria, which are a cell’s energy producer,  are damaged, the body dispatches enzymes that repair the damage. However, when that process gets disrupted, it can have catastrophic effects, including the failure of multiple organs or mutations and cancers.
  3. A repair enzyme. The company’s protein essentially overstimulates the body’s naturally occurring repair enzymes to heal the damage done to the mitochondria.

The company holds a patent on the protein’s compound structure, which was developed by Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Glenn Wilson.

Ferguson said the company has tested the approach in animals, with promising results, and hopes to eventually develop protein structures to target human afflictions. The most recent grant will target primarily heart disease, but company officials expect the platform technology also to serve as a base from which to combat Alzheimer’s Disease, cancer and other illnesses.

Previous grants, Ferguson said, have enabled research on strokes, lung disease and insulin resistance. The company hopes to transfer one of the grants to the University of Louisville.

The protein may even have multiple applications for similar medical problems, Ferguson said. After a heart attack, for example, the protein may be injected into the blood stream together with a clot-busting drug to reduce heart muscle damage, but the protein also may be used as part of a drug regimen to treat chronic heart problems and prevent or delay heart attacks.

Exscien, which was launched in 2011 at the University of South Alabama and has survived primarily through business competitions and grants, moved to Louisville in 2015 thanks to a matching state grant program.

Exscien had secured a $500,000 federal Small Business Innovation Research grant that year, and Kentucky matched the grant with its SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer Matching Funds program. SBIR grants enable small businesses to explore their technological potential and provide the incentive to profit from its commercialization.

The obtain the grant, the company had to move to Kentucky and keep more than half of its payroll and and property in the commonwealth. Ferguson said the company has about 90 percent of its assets and 80 percent of its payroll in Kentucky.

Jack Mazurak, a spokesman for the state’s Cabinet of Economic Development, told Insider that as of the end of 2015, about 100 companies had obtained matching grants, and at least 31 companies had moved to Kentucky as a result of the program. According to the state’s database, the companies have secured 214 grants of about $51.5 million.

“Kentucky is one of the only — if not the sole — state that offers a match for (such) grants, so it’s an advantage the state has in recruiting and creating jobs for highly educated, high-skills tech specialists, entrepreneurs and researchers,” Mazurak said.

Ferguson said Exscien moved to Louisville because of the program, which propelled the company’s development.

“(It) really has enabled us to move light years ahead of where we’d be otherwise,” he said.

Exscien began its Louisville journey in the Nucleus building but now occupies about 2,000 square feet of laboratory, clean room and offices on Chestnut Street.

“We’re actually getting a little cramped,” Ferguson said.

The Louisville lab employs four microbiology and protein production specialists, including two with doctorate degrees, who grow the protein in bacteria.

Ferguson said the company is moving from testing the protein in small rodents to pigs with heart failure. If successful, the protein could eventually be tested in humans, though he said that likely is at least three years away.

The company was awarded the grant together with the LSU Health New Orleans Cardiovascular Center of Excellence.

Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.


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