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Local gene-editing startup working on treatments for dogs and people lands $330,000 grant

Life Engine Animal Health or LEAH Labs, led by CEO and co-founder Dr. Wes Wierson, has been awarded a $337,443 Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institute of Health.

ROCHESTER — A Med City biotech firm working on gene therapies to treat dogs now — and maybe humans later — recently landed more than $330,000 in federal funding.

Life Engine Animal Health or LEAH Labs , led by CEO and co-founder Dr. Wes Wierson, has been awarded a $337,443 Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institute of Health.

LEAH Labs uses gene editing techniques developed by Wierson at Iowa State University with Mayo Clinic support. LEAH Labs licensed the research from Mayo Clinic. LEAH Labs is based in downtown Rochester.

The start-up’s initial product, a CAR-T cell therapy for dogs with cancer, is expected to start pilot trials in patient dogs in the second quarter of 2022. The goal is to create a treatment for B cell lymphoma cancer in dogs. That type of cancer is comparable to Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in humans and kills an estimated 300,000 dogs every year.

“Since inception, we’ve built LEAH Labs with the vision to bring innovations to our furry family members that wouldn’t be possible without our founding expertise in gene editing technology,” stated Wierson in the announcement of the grant. “The aims of this SBIR (grant) were specifically crafted to enhance our gene editing platform and to build a proof-of-concept cell therapy system for autoimmune diseases in dogs and humans, building and strengthening core company intellectual property.”

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While cancer in dogs is the first target, LEAH Labs is also looking at other medical conditions that afflict both dogs and humans, such as Crohn’s, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

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“With the recent advances in genomics, precision medicine, and cell and gene therapy, we are seeing a renewed interest from human pharmaceuticals in companion animals as model systems to streamline and accelerate development of the most promising therapeutic leads,” stated LEAH Labs Scientific Founder and veterinary pharmacologist Dr. Jon Mochel. “This concept, known as One Health, also provides a significant opportunity to develop parallel therapies for humans and their four-legged friends.”

LEAH Labs was occupied for much of 2020 with raising $1.3 million through crowd-sourcing, Angel investors and state economic development grants.

A big milestone happened in March 2021, when a safety study of the treatment was conducted on experimental lab dogs. That study proved the treatment is safe for use on dogs. That cleared the way for a pilot study to treat dogs that have B cell lymphoma cancer.

Jeff Kiger tracks business action in Rochester and southeastern Minnesota every day in "Heard on the Street." Send tips to jkiger@postbulletin.com or via Twitter to @whereskiger . You can call him at 507-285-7798.

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Jeff Kiger writes a daily column, "Heard Around Rochester," in addition to writing articles about local businesses, Mayo Clinic, IBM, Hormel Foods, Crenlo and others. The opinions of my employer do not necessarily reflect my opinions. He has worked in Rochester for the Post Bulletin since 1999. Send tips to jkiger@postbulletin.com or via Twitter to @whereskiger . You can call him at 507-285-7798.
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