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Plant-based medicine for hepatitis C is goal of state-assisted study by Cornell scientist and Ithaca company

The human hepatitis C virus is a target of drug-discovery research by a Cornell University scientist and an Ithaca company, among the latest recipients of support from the New York Science, Technology and Academic Research (NYSTAR) program.New York Gov. George E. Pataki announced in June nearly $1 million in awards from the New York Science, Technology and Academic Research's (NYSTAR) program to four universities, including Cornell, that will – with an eye toward creating jobs – bring high-tech innovations from the research lab to the marketplace.

Rui-Hai Liu, M.D., Ph.D., Cornell assistant professor of food science, will receive $102,500 to work with Marmotech Inc. of Ithaca to develop and commercialize a novel plant-based anti-viral compound. This compound could ultimately battle such pathogens as the human hepatitis C virus (HCV) and the West Nile encephalitis virus. Liu and Marmotech will use this money to development an anti-viral medicine and identify potential commercial partners.

"New York state is fast becoming one of the world's most attractive locations for technology-driven businesses," says Pataki. "Our colleges and universities are hard at work conducting research that will lead to the development of new state-of-the-art technologies. By setting up a process to transfer these cutting-edge technologies from an academic setting to the business world, we will spark the creation of even more high-tech companies, jobs and products."

More than 150 million people worldwide are chronic carriers of HCV, including 4 million in the United States, according to Liu. HCV infection causes chronic hepatitis that can progress to cirrhosis of the liver and is a major cause of liver cancer. Hepatitis C is a major reason for liver transplantation in the United States and why at least 10,000 people die annually in this country from HCV-induced liver disease. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of interferon-alpha (IFN-alpha) and Ribavirin for the treatment of chronic HCV infections, there are frequent and severe complications associated with the use of both drugs. Current therapy also has limited efficacy, and only approximately 30 percent of patients respond adequately.

Liu has been trying to identify natural chemicals in fruits, vegetables and herbs that have anti-cancer and anti-viral activity. Currently, there is no vaccine available for prevention of HCV infection. "For all these reasons, a safe and effective method to treat chronic HCV infection is recognized as an urgent, unmet medical need," says Liu.

Meanwhile, Marmotech has provided financial support for Liu's work and has licensed the technology for development from the Cornell Research Foundation. Marmotech will continue to support the Cornell-based research by providing funds to match the award from NYSTAR.

NYSTAR's Technology Transfer Incentive Program is designed to promote, encourage and facilitate economic development in New York through university-based or corporate-sponsored research. In the first round of funding announced in January, NYSTAR awarded $1.8 million for seven projects.

The latest round of NYSTAR awards included $500,000 to establish an Advanced Biotechnology Incubator at SUNY Downstate Health Science Center in Brooklyn; $300,000 to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in collaboration with Polyset Chemical Co. Inc. of Mechanicville to develop microelectronics and photonics technology; and $90,000 to enable SUNY Albany's Center for Advanced Technology in Thin Films to collaborate with MTI-Instruments Inc. of Albany to develop sensors.

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