Nazareth company gets funds for stroke-busting drug

PamBio claims to have found a way to halt acute bleeding, and prevent brain damage, after a hemorrhagic stroke

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

PamBio's Abed and Noha Higazi (Courtesy)
PamBio's Abed and Noha Higazi (Courtesy)

What do you get when two Israeli Muslims, an Israeli Jew and an Israeli Christian put their heads together? Well, since this isn’t a riddle, the answer is a stroke-defeating drug.

Founded by the husband and wife team of Prof. Abed Higazi and Dr. Noha Higazi, PamBio, a biotech company, claims to have found a way to halt acute bleeding and prevent brain damage after a hemorrhagic stroke — a condition that has no drug treatment today.

Hemorrhagic stroke usually occurs when a small blood vessel ruptures and bleeds into the brain tissue. The only way to treat this kind of stroke, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all strokes, is to drill a hole in the skull and relieve the pressure on the brain. And then wait, and pray, for the bleeding to stop.

Each year, 1.5 million-2 million people suffer from hemorrhagic stroke worldwide, of whom 31 percent die within a week, and 59% within a year. Those who survive the stroke suffer from severe disabilities. The financial toll attributed to stroke in the US and Europe is estimated at $43.6 billion annually, data provided by PamBio shows.

Abed Higazi, a clinical biochemist who heads the Division of Laboratories and the Department of Clinical Biochemistry at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and his wife, Dr. Noha Higazi, discovered that after a hemorrhagic stroke, the body reacts in a counterintuitive way: instead of increasing clotting, it increases anti-coagulant activity. This causes the bleeding to continue, leading to more damage.

So they set out to find a solution to counter this increased activity, and came up with a drug that seems to do just that.

“We found a solution that inhibits this activity and stabilizes the number of blood clots, preventing further bleeding,” Abed Higazi said by phone. “We have a proof of concept after trying out our medication in pigs and mice, and now we need to take this to human trials.”

The benefits of the drug — a solution containing a protein molecule that prevents bleeding that is injected into the patient intravenously — include minimizing the blood toxicity in the brain, reduced side effects and strong binding to the target to minimize the required dose required. The drug also minimizes potential immunogenicity and organ tissue toxicity, the company said.

Proof of concept studies have shown that PamBio’s biomolecule reduces bleeding in the brains of mice with good neurological outcome; that piglets treated with the drug suffered less neurodegeneration; and that the drug is effective in preventing general and systemic bleeding, reducing by half both bleeding time in mice and bleeding volume in rats.

In the future, this drug product will also be used to treat other bleeding disorders, such as traumatic brain injury, general injuries, bleeding due to surgery, and post-birth hemorrhage, Higazi said.

“The next challenge will be to transfer this drug from the research labs into a product that is stable and can be manufactured in commercial amounts in an efficient way,” Dr. Amos Ofer, the CEO of the company said. “We also need to set out a timeframe and plans for the clinical trials which we hope to start in 2019.”

PamBio's CEO Amos Ofer (Courtesy)
PamBio’s CEO Amos Ofer (Courtesy)

The two Higazis, Ofer and Isabelle Dai, a biologist and the company’s laboratory manager, are the four main people behind the company, which was set up in collaboration with Hadassit, the technology transfer company of Hadassah hospital, and the Nazareth-based NGT3. NGT3 is a venture capital fund that also holds a franchise from the office of the Chief Scientist at the Economy Ministry to operate a technological incubator in the life science fields.

NGT3 invests in early stage technological startup companies, and supports them with legal and financial assistance, marketing, business development and partnerships, fundraising, and product development. It also has a social agenda of increasing collaboration in the technology sphere between Israel’s Arab and Jewish populations.

Since 2012, the Israeli government has set up a number of programs to help Israeli Arabs integrate into the labor market and the high tech industry, in an effort to boost economic growth and reduce inequality. NGT3 was set up as part of this initiative. Israeli Arabs are 21 percent of Israel’s population but just 5.7% of those employed in high tech and just 2% of those employed in research and development, according to Israel’s Innovation Authority 2016 report.

PamBio said earlier this month that it raised, in a first round of investment, $7 million from an unnamed private investor who also will support the company in further developing its drug. Since its establishment in August 2014, the company has received NIS 3 million ($780,000) from NGT3 and the Israeli government.

“Such a considerable investment at such an early stage of a pharma company, three years before the first human trial, is a huge accomplishment,” said Zohan Gendler, the CEO of NGT3.

The investment will enable the further research and development of PamBio’s drug, including preclinical and clinical studies. PamBio also plans to recruit additional employees in the coming year.

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