UNIVERSITY PARK, PA — Dr. Andrew Patterson and his team are taking on a potentially silent killer that plagues nearly a third of Americans. His team is Heliome Biotech, and with a market that broad, the startup's potential impact is massive.

Patterson formed Heliome Biotech in the fall of 2015 with the goal of commercializing technology that combats non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). NAFLD is often asymptomatic and goes undetected, but it can lead to more serious complications.

"Fatty liver disease is a growing problem," said Patterson, "so the applications of our technology are widespread." In NASH, the fatty liver becomes inflamed and damaged, with the possibility of progression into fibrosis, liver failure and cirrhosis, ultimately requiring transplantation.

The association of the metabolic disorder with obesity explains the rise in numbers, but the responsible mechanism is yet to be scientifically understood.

The culprit of fat buildup in the liver seems to be due to activity of the farnesoid X receptor (FXR) in the gut, which is a regulator of metabolic activity that can be a fat producer when switched "on."  Interestingly enough, the antagonistic hero that can press the "off" switch is a bile acid, which can be broken down by bacteria before it can inhibit the FXR. According to Dr. Patterson and his colleagues, the solution to this problem might be found in a therapeutic agent that is resistant to bacterial enzymatic activity.

That's what Heliome Biotech hopes to commercialize. The compound they have discovered optimizes liver conditions in mice, thereby treating and preventing NAFLD.

Commercialization could mean prevention and treatment of fatty liver disease, which steeply effects the US population.

"A lot of people see promise in what we're doing," said Patterson. And it's no wonder—a bile acid derivative in pill form with the potential to reverse an epidemic is certainly a novel proposition.

Patterson started the company with a friend from his undergraduate years at Penn State, Dr. Jing Liang, who is a pharmaceutical consultant involved in startups in the biotechnology field. Initially, they experienced difficulty obtaining funding for the production of compounds, which occurs at Penn State Hershey College of Medicine.

Faculty researchers have time and time again encountered this dilemma: they make a discovery with potential to transform, optimize or even heal. They produce small-scale results. And then they get stuck. Without substantial funding, there is no way to reproduce these results on a macro level. But without macro-level results, that funding is hard to find.

Patterson was urged to seek admission to the TechCelerator. He and his team participated in a 10-week course, ultimately receiving a $5,000 award through the TechCelerator competition.

"The TechCelerator program was an eye-opener," said Patterson, who is an associate professor of molecular toxicology at Penn State, expert in metabolomics and admittedly not an entrepreneur. He approached the TechCelerator as a researcher and academic, and graduated with expanded horizons. "I got to understand [business] terminology and the important steps, one of which was building the strongest team possible."

Heliome Biotech's Chief Scientific Officer Harry Mandeville has experience with taking drugs to market—no easy task.

"We have a tremendously strong team and can go places," Patterson said, identifying a balance of expertise as a key feature. Some details of running a business are not on his radar, but his teammates' knowledge base complements his scientific mind and inquisitive spirit.

Currently, Heliome Biotech is in the process of legal negotiations, as the technology is owned jointly by the university and the government.

"There is a long, arduous road ahead of us and a lot of work. The future depends largely on fundraising," said Patterson. Despite obstacles, Patterson remains encouraged by the progress he has seen so far and optimistic about future growth. "Seeing the translational potential of our discoveries is really satisfying."

Heliome Biotech was recently granted $75,000 by the Penn State Research Foundation Fund for Innovation to sustain research and production, an early indication of the technology’s promise and Penn State’s commitment to its Invent Penn State initiative.