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Three things to know about Knoxville-based Orion Therapeutics

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of posts about companies LaunchTN has supported through the SBIR/STTR Matching Fund. 

Orion Therapeutics stands at the forefront of RNA therapies and vaccines, specializing in targeted drug delivery systems. This approach paves the way for treating diseases previously deemed incurable and addresses significant clinical demands.

The company is currently exploring opportunities to sublicense their advanced delivery technology to firms seeking precise targeting capabilities within the body.

Check out three highlights about the Knoxville-based company.

1. It got started out of a dissertation at UT Medical School.

Co-founder Trey Fisher, having completed his master’s degree, began collaborating with Dr. Deidra Mountain in 2012 at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

 Together, they delved into the molecular mechanisms of vascular disease and injury, aiming to create an RNA therapeutic to prevent restenosis, a specific vascular disease challenge.

 “My dissertation quickly evolved into developing a unique delivery system for this RNA drug payload, ensuring it could be safely translated to our animal models without causing significant adverse effects,” Fisher said.  

2. The company tackles a common, widespread problem in RNA therapeutics.

The team focused on addressing a critical issue. 

“All RNA drugs and vaccines need nano-scale delivery systems for protection, packaging, and delivery to target cells in the body,” Fisher said. “Unfortunately these delivery vehicles often lead to toxicity and immunogenic responses. Our mission was to confront this challenge directly.”

Currently, RNA therapies are administered in small doses, like vaccines, but aren’t suitable for cancer patients at higher doses due to toxicity associated with these delivery systems.

The team at Orion Therapeutics has devised a “package” that reduces this toxicity. They’ve also developed the capability to tailor their delivery system, ensuring the “package” precisely targets and reaches the previously inaccessible areas of the body.

“A new therapeutic approach, our technology promises cures for diseases once considered incurable, elevates care standards, and treats the root cause, not just symptoms,” co-founder Jennifer Zachry said.

Scientists need both the package and the address in order to target a specific site in the body, and currently other companies offer the package but not the address.

“Our company’s primary objective is to supply an effective delivery package to organizations with developing RNA drug candidates, ensuring precise delivery to essential areas like the heart, lungs, and tumor sites to name a few,” Zachry said. “The ability to get it to a specific site without toxic effects can accelerate the therapies to market and ultimately patients.”

In addition to targeted delivery, Orion has also patented an siRNA drug asset in the cardiovascular disease space. This vascular gene therapy has the potential to reduce inflammation and help prevent common endovascular procedures from failing.

3. The company has gotten support from several organizations, including MassBioDrive in Boston and Launch Tennessee. 

Orion Therapeutics has garnered support from multiple organizations, including MassBioDrive in Boston and Launch Tennessee. 

As part of the 2022 cohort in Boston’s esteemed MassBioDrive accelerator program, Orion connected with pharma companies and mentors. 

“We were the first Tennessee-based company they ever selected, which is quite unique for our location,” Fisher said.

They also joined Knoxville’s Spark Incubator Program and were recently named winners of the Eli Lilly & Company Genetic Medicine Grand Challenge.

“There’s clearly a lot of enthusiasm for our work at all of these events and competitions we have participated in, and we have received tons of advice from industry leaders as a result,” Jennifer said. 

Additionally, Launch Tennessee funded Orion through its SBIR/STTR Matching Fund program for fiscal year 2024 as one of 30 companies.

In November, the company triumphed at LSTCON’s Venture Forum competition, outperforming three other Tennessee startups.

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