Targeting the Flu with a Novel Antiviral Drug

UConn molecular and cell biologist, Jim Cole, formed a startup to develop a novel potential treatment for the flu.

James Cole, professor of molecular and cell biology, with a ultracentrifuge at the Biology/Physics Building on July 27, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

James Cole, professor of molecular and cell biology, with a ultracentrifuge at the Biology/Physics Building on July 27, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Jim Cole’s journey to academia is surprising – as a former scientist at Merck, Cole has a unique perspective on the drug discovery process. Jim Cole is professor at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and the Department of Chemistry. He is reentering the world of industry, thanks to support from UConn’s tech transfer experts and the Program in Innovative Therapeutics for Connecticut’s Health, also known as PITCH.

“When I went from Big Pharma to an academic position, I realized that in many ways I was on my own. Faculty members are much more independent than scientists working in a Big Pharma environment. As academics we are like small businesses with our own research projects and the responsibility for generating our own funding. While universities provide many important resources, the support facilities for translational research are often lacking. That is why PITCH is so essential for the work that we are doing.”

A joint program with Yale University, PITCH was established in 2016 to encourage commercialization of research from the state’s universities through the discovery of novel drug compounds. The initiative is supported by a three-year, $10 million investment managed by Connecticut Innovations.

Funding aside, according to Cole, PITCH is shaping the way his lab is developing their novel antiviral drug.

The development of antiviral drugs has historically taken several  decades, as standard approaches call for a new drug to be created for each virus. While researchers are developing these therapies, viruses are evolving and quickly forming resistance.

The Cole lab is taking a novel approach – instead of targeting the virus, they are targeting the host in their quest to develop a drug to treat the flu. The idea is to turn on a particular pathway in the innate immunity system that will enhance our ability to fight viral infections. Cole and his lab are targeting the flu because of its importance and prevalence as a seasonal disease. It also poses significant risk of becoming pandemic, which would have a significant public health impact. Cole’s lab has identified a specific target in the innate immunity pathway. With over a decade of experience, they are developing molecules that would turn on the enzyme to activate the immune response.

Cole explains, “With PITCH we began to screen for small molecules that would function as activators. We screened over 100,000 compounds through the program and that was the key to moving this project forward. Out of the 100,000 we uncovered several molecules that turn on the enzyme.”

Being able to treat the flu would be a major advantage over the current drugs on the market according to Cole and industry experts from the PITCH advisory committee. Current methods of treating the flu are relatively ineffective.

Through PITCH, Jim Cole was also able to create a company (Emphutos Therapeutics) with the goal of moving this project forward by attracting grants and investor support. PITCH recently assisted Cole with the writing and submission of a US Government small business grant to obtain funding for the next stage of the novel antiviral drug project.

“PITCH made creating the company so easy for us. There are so many ways that being a part of PITCH is helping us bridge the ‘valley of death.’ The range of disciplines required to translate basic research into therapeutically useful science is very large and it is often difficult for academics to set up those teams on their own. We’ve had access to people at PITCH who have a range of different scientific skills not represented in my department or even on my campus.”

Cole’s company hit a major milestone recently when they secured space in the UConn Technology Incubation Program – designed to spur company growth for high-potential companies developed by faculty or external entrepreneurs. Cole also worked with the tech transfer experts at UConn who introduced him to the now CEO of his company.

For Cole, PITCH has been an essential “connector and convener” to broaden the reach of his work.

This story was originally posted on the PITCH website at


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