Missoula upstart biotech company DermaXon received a grant from the Montana Department of Commerce last month to help fund more studies and generate data needed to attract investors for a new compound to treat chronic neuropathic pain.

The $99,326 grant from the Montana Board of Research and Commercialization Technology, or MBRCT, will help finance further research and development of the topical treatment. Data generated by the research will help attract investors and grants from the government.  

DermaXon founders Fanny Astruc-Diaz and Philippe Diaz can then begin clinical trials for the medication to gain approval by the FDA, allowing sales nationwide.

Associated with the University of Montana and the University of Calgary, DermaXon was founded in 2013 and focuses on the biological mechanism behind aging and treating age-related skin diseases.

The firm received more than $900,000 in funding to develop two compounds, one to treat neuropathic pain and the other to treat ichthyosis, a rare skin disorder.

“We are interested by skin and also the nerve endings in the skin and related diseases,” Philippe Diaz said. “So, for example, pain and also the connection between skin and the brain.”

Along with help by the universities, DermaXon worked with skincare company Rodan + Fields and Galderma and MD Anderson Cancer Center, where they were able to learn more about how other substances and medications affect the brain, such as oral medications and cannabinoids found in cannabis.

With this research, they were able to learn more about channels in the nervous system, called T-type calcium channels, and started developing a compound to help interrupt these channels and reduce chronic neuropathic pain. This will most likely be administered through a cream or ointment, Fanny Astruc-Diaz said.

“For example, if you have back pain and if you take a pill, medically all of your body will be exposed to the pill and maybe you are going to have some side effects,” Philippe Diaz said. “But by using a topical treatment, not all the body will be exposed to the drug. So this is a way to reduce side effects.”

The current pain medications market is estimated to be over $10 billion in the United States, while being almost $50 billion worldwide, according to DermaXon’s executive summary to the MBRCT.

Pain is a leading health problem in the U.S., with 20 percent of Americans suffering from chronic pain. About 40 to 50 percent of these patients receive adequate relief using drugs with side effects, the summary reports.

DermaXon co-founder Fanny Astruc-Diaz works over a reactor during testing of the firm's medication for chronic pain. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)
DermaXon co-founder Fanny Astruc-Diaz works over a reactor during testing of the firm's medication for chronic pain. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

The compound, which doesn’t have a name yet, has been in development for about four years. The end goal for DermaXon is to develop something that can be used continuously without side effects and addiction, which can be caused by opioids and other pain medication, the founders said.

“There is no other company working on developing these kinds of drugs in the topical treatment of pain,” Philippe Diaz said.

According to the Missoula Economic Partnership, biotech is a developing and thriving industry in Missoula. However, it is a challenge to find a local workforce for this industry.

DermaXon recently hired CEO Michelle Huie who founded VIM & VIGR in Missoula and a recent University of Montana graduate. They have worked with University of Montana students and are happy to be a future employer for those who study biology and chemistry.

“They thought they would never find a job in Missoula, and so they’re really excited about the company,” Fanny Astruc-Diaz said.

However, it hasn’t always been easy.

“To be honest, it’s been quite challenging. Many times we’ve been told, and recently again, ‘you are not a real biotech [company]. You’re in Missoula, Montana.’ So it’s really hard to network and it costs money to travel and to reach out to people,” she said.

Despite this, there is a lot of investment in biotech startups in Montana. The Montana Department of Commerce awarded a total of $794,510 in grants this year to encourage innovation, research and high-wage job creation across the state.

Jim Davison, chairman of the Montana Board of Research and Commercialization Technology, said that what DermaXon is working on is impressive.

“What they’re looking at is cutting edge. While there are other products out there, this appears to have a real breakthrough to treat the symptoms that they are going after,” he said.

Companies are chosen by their proposal with details on research and development, as well as the commercial viability of the company’s product. Projects that have been funded in the past include research in beehive collapse, water quality, medical advancements, and environmental cleanup.

Circulating money and creating opportunities in the state is the end goal of the board.

“We really want to see the commercial capabilities of a project. Research is nice to fund, but we want to make sure it translates into potential development, jobs and investment,” he said.