"Chances of surviving are better" say Oak Ridge scientists behind COVID-19 therapy

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- NellOne Therapeutics, based in Oak Ridge, filed a patent for a therapy it claims can help patients of COVID-19.

Cymbeline Culiat is the president of the company. Her research began ten years ago at the University of Tennessee where she was an associate professor. Culiat was also working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on the Human Genome Project. There she discovered a protein that can fight off inflammation.

As the coronavirus pandemic started, Culiat said “We did a pivot in order to address what is a very serious crisis for our country right now."

Experts said survivors of the virus deal with long-term tissue damage. The protein they're calling NELL-1 can help heal damaged tissue in the lungs and heart before inflammation occurs.

“If you could intervene at that early stage so you don’t have a prolonged overreaction of the inflammation system — if you don’t get there, then you don’t need the ICU and your chances of surviving [COVID-19] are better,” Culiat told WVLT News reporter Robert Grant.

Because the federal government has eased regulations on the way drugs get to market, Culiat is hopeful they can speed up the process. She said they're looking at administering the drug through a shot or inhalation.

“Obviously, you have to balance the safety of what you’re working on. But we are working on getting it there very quickly," she said.

The company recently named Bill Malkes as CEO. The East Tennessee entrepreneur has led several successful technology companies in the past, including his last company which became the second largest in its space.

“It would not have happened in Silicon Valley or Austin. This was the only place it could happen. It grew from a blank piece of paper to the second biggest company in its space. I see that happening for NellOne. It’s going to grow in a different way that it would grow in different environments,” said Malkes.

Malkes and Culiat said this is a homegrown story that sheds a light on the important scientific research happening in East Tennessee.

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