University professor’s new company receives $45 million investment for antifungal drug research

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  • Portrait of Martin Burke, professor of chemistry and head of REVOLUTION, a company that researches natural medicinal remedies. 

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When chemistry Professor Martin Burke attended medical school, he learned about Amphotericin B, a natural medicine used as the last line of defense for severe fungal diseases. 

This drug was also thought to be very deadly to humans because it disrupts the polarization of cells, therefore killing individual cells, and sometimes caused debilitation and death. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, severe fungal diseases kill over one million people per year. Considering that half of the patients with systemic fungal diseases will die even if they take Amphotericin B, Burke sought out to research and develop a better, non-toxic version of the drug.

While researching Amphotericin B in 2012, he discovered the medicine to be deadly because it kills both the fungi’s and the human’s cholesterol, as opposed to what he was taught in medical school. By using simple chemical building blocks, Burke was able to synthesize a derivative of the drug that kills only the fungi’s cholesterol.

With this information, Burke recently founded the company REVOLUTION Medicines in collaboration with Third Rock Venture, a financing investment firm that invested $45 million in the company. Dr. Mark Goldsmith, the founding president and chief executive officer of REVOLUTION Medicines, said the company’s “initial vision is to treat severe fungal disease, but we hope to expand the scope to include other diseases as well.” 

“The idea is to try and take these complex molecules and transform them into simple little building blocks that are easy to make in the lab, and what my lab developed is a methodology that allows us to couple those building blocks together using just one reaction over and over again,” Burke said. “With all that, we ended up being able to make the derivative of Amphotericin using this building block chemistry, and excitingly this derivative showed us that our hypothesis was correct; the sterol binding was the key”

REVOLUTION Medicines began with developing new technologies regarding how to transform Amphotericin B into a less toxic drug, and now that that’s underway, Burke and the REVOLUTION team are developing ways to take other products of nature and turn them into medicines.

Burke also received support and funding through two Proof of Concept awards from the University.

Dr. Lisa Dhar, senior associate director at the Office of Technology Management, said the office aided Burke with the development of the technology created in his lab.

“Professor Burke was a part of our Proof of Concept Program and he received two Proof of Concept awards that were administered through our office,” Dhar said. “The award is meant to provide funding to help advance technology toward commercialization.”

Because of Burke’s leading antifungal program on campus, REVOLUTION Medicines has signed a license agreement with the University stating that the company has exclusive rights to develop certain technology at the University. It also states that “the license agreement itself involves a transfer of intellectual property rights in exchange for compensation for the University,” Goldsmith said.

Burke said he is very grateful for the amenities and support the University has provided.

“It’s very exciting to think about creating an environment where basic science can flourish and then having this capacity for that basic science to get launched out to society,” he said. “Illinois has just created really powerful resources to allow that to happen, and so we’ve definitely benefited from that tremendously.”

Caeli can be reached at [email protected].