Launched in 2013, Nzumbe, Inc., is an OHSU startup company providing research services to accelerate the development of breakthrough therapies in challenging diseases, such as cancer. Nzumbe focuses on a root cause of cancer known as gene silencing. When critical genes, known as tumor suppressor genes, are silenced, a cancer cell can arise and grow to form a tumor that may spread throughout the body. Mitch Turker, Ph.D., J.D., whose lab resides in the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences at OHSU, created a platform to screen for drugs and compounds that can reactivate and stabilize these silenced genes. This discovery served as the platform from which the company was initially founded.
Nzumbe’s goal with this technology is to identify early steps in the gene silencing process, hitting the root cause of disease before and after the disease has occurred. The company was named Nzumbe, zombie in Angolan dialect, because of the company’s mission to give permanent life back to the zombie-type genes that would otherwise remain half-alive (i.e. reactivated tumor suppressor genes) through the cell-based screening platform.
Michael Rountree, an expert in the field of epigenetics, was then appointed to serve as the company’s scientific director. Rountree’s expertise with both mammalian systems and the fungus, Neurospora crassa, adds distinctive value to Nzumbe’s drug screening capabilities. Neurospora possesses the same epigenetic marks as humans, but with a far more simplistic genome. Nzumbe is exploiting this genetically tractable fungal system to design more rapid, less expensive epigenetic drug screening platforms.
Nzumbe, Inc., has received several sources of funding, including support from the Oregon Translational Research and Development Institute (OTRADI) and an OHSU/Portland Development Commission commercialization grant. In 2014, Nzumbe was awarded its first Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant. The team hopes that monies from its STTR grant will be a real driver for company success to help demonstrate commercialization progress and move on to the next stage of development.
Nzumbe, Inc., is now working to identify business partners or opportunities for larger investment. Obtaining buy-in and identifying potential partners to screen epigenetic compound libraries will be crucial in ultimately selling its screening product and research services. The company hopes that working with new partners will help validate its platform and expand the application of its technology to other fields, such as toxicology, childhood developmental diseases, neurological and geriatric disorders. In the future, the company aspires to have a larger economic impact that includes providing jobs and opportunities in the local Northwest biotech community.