When Ken Rose ’15 was sitting in Dr. David Lipani’s literature class at University of Lynchburg, talking about Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” little did he know that a few years later he’d launch a company named after one of the story’s main characters, Alcinous.
“I was doing some reading and it just came to me,” Rose, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Alcinous Pharmaceuticals, said. “That’s a good place to look for a name for a drug company. You have to have some deeper meaning for your company’s name, but more than that, it’s kind of inspiring. Alcinous was critical. Without him, Odysseus would never have gotten home to Ithaca. We’re helping cancer patients get out of the hospital and back home. It reflects our company’s mission.”
Alcinous also is Greek for “mighty mind.”
Rose, a PhD candidate in the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience program at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy, co-founded Alcinous Pharmaceuticals in 2016 with two other URI doctoral students, Nicholas DaSilva and Benjamin Barlock.
“I had an idea for the current drug that we’re working on,” Rose said. “The idea fell outside of the scope of my dissertation research, so I approached the other two founders and formed a company to research the idea. We had all talked about forming a company and this was a matter of the right idea at the right time.”
Currently, the Alcinous team is working to improve a class of cancer drugs called Poly ADP-Ribose Polymerase inhibitors — PARP inhibitors, for short. As Rose explains it, “PARP itself is a protein that exists in the body” and “certain cancers highjacks the PARP proteins” and start dividing rapidly. “By making a drug-binding partner, we can insert a drug into the protein and limit its effect … and knock out the PARP activity,” he said. “When it can no longer divide, it dies. Turn off the PARP effect and the cancer eventually dies.”
Unfortunately, PARP inhibitors, used to treat later-stage breast and ovarian cancers caused by BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, typically have severe side effects. For that reason, they aren’t viewed as a first line of defense. “It has its toxicity, its limitations,” Rose said, adding that side effects are what you’d imagine with cancer treatments — nausea, vomiting, etc. — but more so with PARP inhibitors.
Rose said PARP inhibitors also affect a person’s DNA, which can lead to future cancers. If someone is treated with a PARP inhibitor at age 50, for example, they “have a much better chance of developing new or different cancers in their 70s, which we want to avoid as well.”
Alcinous currently has five original patents for drugs they say “reduce [PARP inhibitor] toxicity, increase their effectiveness and patient tolerability, and improve patient outcomes.” The next step is to join forces with a bigger pharmaceutical company, which will do human trials and manufacture and distribute the drug. “Our plan is merger and acquisition,” Rose said. “A larger company would license the patent, buy the company, and help us develop it. It costs nearly two billion dollars to develop a drug in the U.S. We need help from a larger pharma company.”
The need for “big pharma” aside, the work Alcinous is doing is personal. Rose’s grandmother died of cancer, Chief Operations Officer David Worthen’s mother died of ovarian cancer, and co-founder Barlock’s father is recovering from cancer. “Even though these cancers could not be treated by PARP inhibitors, we have a vendetta against the disease,” Rose said. “Currently, we are moving to develop a second drug, targeting the cancer Ben’s father had.”
Rose was a psychology major at Lynchburg, but he also took most of the classes for a biology degree. Among others, he credits psychology professor Dr. Keith Corodimas with giving him a leg up. “He opened his lab to me and I was able to work and do research and get my toes wet, doing real, publishable research that was impactful,” Rose said.
In the biology department, Rose said Dr. David Freier’s cellular diversity and immunology classes “taught me more than anything I learned through my four years at LC” and were “the most information-dense and important classes I’ve taken.”
Even as an undergraduate, Rose said his goal was to go into drug development. “I wanted to work with drugs destined for the brain,” he said. “That’s what my dissertation research is on. I wanted to use psychology to think about the human aspect of drug discovery and not just the drug aspect. … This is going to go into a person someday, not just this is a chemical that will work.”
That Rose went on to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience and launch a pharmaceutical company doesn’t surprise Dr. Corodimas at all. “He’s a real go-getter. He’s so independent,” he said, adding that as an undergraduate Rose took on research that even he didn’t fully understand, including one project involving the crayfish brain. “He acted like a graduate student his senior year. He was amazing.”
Over the summer of 2014, Dr. Corodimas arranged for Rose to study at the prestigious LeDoux Lab at the Center for Neural Science at New York University. The staff there was equally impressed. Claudia Farb, an assistant research scientist and longtime employee at the lab, recalled Rose as “the rare undergraduate who showed initiative, can work independently, and can troubleshoot and correct the problems that arise.”
She also described him as a “gifted student, who shows great potential to succeed in science” and said his “combination of intellectual curiosity, initiative, motivation, commitment, technical aptitude, and problem-solving skills are qualities that will help him excel in graduate school and in a career in science.”