Success Story

Penn State Startup Working on Novel Approach to Treatment of Complications of Flu and Other Respiratory Illnesses Like COVID-19

There are over 200,000 influenza infection-related hospitalizations, and as many as 49,000 deaths, in the U.S. annually. Those hospitalizations and deaths are often a result of the immune system’s overreactive response to the respiratory virus, known as a cytokine storm. To solve this problem, Penn State startup Respana Therapeutics is developing a treatment that uniquely focuses on re-balancing the host’s immune system post-infection rather than attacking the pathogen.

“The immune system protects the body by destroying harmful cells,” says Andy Agrawal, Vice President of Respana Therapeutics. “Under certain circumstances, respiratory viruses like the flu and COVID-19 can cause an infected person’s immune system to overreact in a way that negatively affects the person’s healthy cells and organs.”

Agrawal says this can lead to severe complications, hospitalization, and death. Respana’s monoclonal antibody recalibrates the immune response from inflammatory to reparative, thus increasing the survival rate.

Unlike the annual flu vaccine, which is preventative and has never been more than 60% effective, the therapeutic is meant to help those who are already critically ill with a flu-related illness. Those who are high-risk of influenza include children under two years of age, adults over the age of 65, immunosuppressed individuals, pregnant and postpartum women, and people with underlying medical conditions.

“However, the overdrive response can occur in anyone,” says Respana co-founder Dr. Zissis Chroneos, a professor and researcher at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “Pandemic or highly pathogenic seasonal influenza strains cause disproportionate disease burden in healthy young adults, because their strong immune system overreacts to the virus … Respana’s treatment prevents this immune system distraction by eliminating the excess inflammation, leaving restorative functions of the immune system intact.”

Respana Therapeutics was one of 23 entities to receive funding from the Wolf Administration in August to develop effective COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and therapies.

Founded in 2017, Respana Therapeutics was created to commercialize the therapeutic developed in the labs of Dr. Zissis Chroneos and Dr. Neil Christensen at the Penn State College of Medicine.

“The original inspiration for Respana came from many years of research to understand how the lung resists inflammation despite the myriad of daily exposures, a serendipitous encounter in a hallway involving a scientific discussion with my colleague Dr. Neil Christensen who is co-founder of Respana Therapeutics, and multiple discussions with colleagues and intellectual property experts at the Penn State Center for Medical Innovation (CMI),” says Chroneos.

Chroneos had been working on how the lung deploys surfactant proteins and lipids, collectively called surfactant, to keep bacteria-absorbing cells in the lung vigilant to clear infections and other particles without eliciting unwanted inflammation.

“This research was motivated by the 2009 influenza pandemic and evidence that surfactant components play key but not yet understood roles in influenza disease severity,” says Chroneos. “We produced monoclonal antibodies that showed efficacy in preclinical studies in weakening the cytokine storm and facilitating restoration of lung health.”

The Respana therapeutic is still in the early stages of development, but the expectation is that it will be virus agnostic – meaning it could help people suffering from other respiratory diseases, such as COVID-19.

“We are treating the inflammatory disease by crippling the cytokine storm produced by a viral infection,” says Chroneos. “Therefore, it is possible that it may work for the treatment of COVID-19, which is a type of cytokine storm manifestation following infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

The startup has also been working on the scientific development under grant funding from the National Institute of Health and matching private funds.

“We are proud to be working with the people at the Center for Medical Innovation at Penn State, as they have been great resources for us,” says Agrawal. “Despite its early stage, Respana has attracted a strong, experienced management team and is well positioned to continue advancing the technology.”

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