November 5, 2018

Biotech Startup Wins $75K at MassChallenge

Oxalo Therapeutics, a biotech startup founded by a UChicago faculty member and graduate student with the goal of finding new treatments for kidney stones, won a $75,000 grant from the Boston-based startup accelerator MassChallenge, on top of a $2.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. 

Hatim Hassan, an assistant professor of medicine at UChicago, and Yang Zheng, an M.B.A. student at Booth School of Business, founded Oxalo to find new ways to reduce oxalate, a compound contributing to the majority of kidney stone production. 

Oxalate, along with calcium, is responsible for the most common type of kidney stone formation in urine. Therefore, reducing oxalate levels in the urine can decrease one’s risk of developing kidney stones. 

Recent attempts on new treatments for kidney stones have focused on regulating external sources from diet and internal oxalate production in liver to reduce oxalate levels. Oxalo Therapeutics is taking a different approach by pioneering a technique using factors secreted by a gut bacterium called Oxalobacter formigenes to naturally aid oxalate removal in the large intestine. 

These bacteria are unique due to their total dependence on oxalate for energy requirements. In addition to degrading dietary oxalate using a specific enzyme, the bacteria also secrete factors, which manipulate the intestinal cells to transport oxalate from blood into the colon lumen and then excrete it in stool. This results in a decrease of oxalate levels in one’s urine, which reduces the possibility of kidney stone formation. 

Oxalo Therapeutics has successfully identified specific proteins and small peptides as the major factors secreted by O. formigenes. Ultimately, Oxalo hopes to use these peptides to develop an oral pill with the capability to stimulate colonic oxalate secretion, leading to decreased plasma and urine oxalate levels and a lowered risk of kidney stones.

“We believe we have [an] advantage since we use a natural mechanism. We anticipate minimal or no side effects because we are exposed to these factors on [a] daily basis,” Hassan told The Maroon

For next steps in the startup, Hassan explained, “The company now has its own lab at the HTC incubator [at the University of Illinois at Chicago] and the focus will be on developing optimized peptides…to reduce plasma and urine oxalate levels through structural modifications.” 

If the company succeeds in such development, “[the startup] will then develop an oral formulation, followed by preclinical toxicology and pharmacokinetics studies in rats and nonhuman primates.”

Correction on Nov. 9, 2018, 2:02 p.m. CST:

An earlier version of this article misrepresented the mechanisms by which factors secreted by Oxalobacter formigenes lower patients' risk of kidney stones.