Michael Owens, Ph.D., has spent his entire career researching ways to combat drug abuse.
His chosen field of study fits perfectly with his personal goal of making “an impact on human health.” But to fully reach that goal, he said, his findings needed to move out of the laboratory and into the realm of pharmaceutical development.
So in 2004, he co-founded InterveXion Therapeutics LLC with Brooks Gentry, M.D., chair of the Department of Anesthesiology in the UAMS College of Medicine; Ralph Henry, Ph.D., distinguished professor of biological sciences at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; and Barry Holtz, Ph.D., pharmaceutical biotechnology expert, now retired.
Misty Stevens, Ph.D., M.B.A, joined the company the next year as a staff scientist and is now the operations director. The UAMS BioVentures startup company is pursuing FDA approval of two drugs, an antibody and a vaccine, to combat methamphetamine addiction.
“We knew that if we didn’t champion this, no one else would,” said Owens, a professor in the UAMS College of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and director of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Studies. “So it has taken a long-term commitment by our team to do that — one person doesn’t do that alone.”
The combination of groundbreaking research and an entrepreneurial spirit made Owens an ideal candidate for the Arkansas Research Alliance to recognize, said Jerry Adams, president and CEO of the group.
In December, Owens was one of five researchers selected as a 2015 ARA Fellow, a program that recognizes distinguished university research leaders who are working at one of the state’s five research universities — UAMS; Arkansas State University; University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; University of Arkansas at Little Rock; and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
The Fellows program, which is in its second year and comes with a three-year $75,000 grant, is a companion to the ARA Scholars Program that recruits researchers to Arkansas.
“We are looking for research excellence with our Fellows program,” Adams said. “Mike’s demonstrated history of entrepreneurship and continual federal funding for his work made him a great choice for the program.”
Owens joins an elite group at UAMS that includes the university’s inaugural Fellow Laura James, M.D., director of the UAMS Translational Research Institute; and three ARA Scholars — Daohong Zhou, M.D., a professor in the Division of Radiation Health of the UAMS College of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences; Peter Crooks, Ph.D.,
D.Sc., chair of the College of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences; and Gareth Morgan, M.D., Ph.D., director of the UAMS Myeloma Institute.
“Mike represents the triple threat academician, which is someone who excels in all three mission areas of research, teaching and service,” said Lawrence E. Cornett, Ph.D., vice chancellor for research. “He is just excellent in every area that you would want a faculty member to excel.”
A career in academia wasn’t initially in Owen’s plans. After majoring in chemistry at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., he spent a couple of years working at The Medical University of South Carolina as a clinical lab technician before heading to graduate school at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He majored in experimental pathology and intended to become a forensic toxicologist.
All of that changed when he started analyzing data about marijuana use in fatal accidents. As he worked on various projects relating to marijuana usage, he “got very interested in academics and the problems associated with drugs of abuse,” he said.
“So I changed routes from being a forensic toxicologist to being an academic scientist,” Owens said, a shift that would take him to the University of Arizona in Tucson to study therapeutics.
It was in Arizona where he started working on antibodies to treat drug abuse, a field of study that would continue when he came to UAMS in 1985 and ultimately become his life’s work.
Owens and his research team at UAMS have developed an antibody that binds to methamphetamine and hampers the drug’s ability to move from the bloodstream into the brain, thus lessening its ability to produce a euphoric high. They also have created a methamphetamine vaccine.
“Methamphetamine is one of the major drugs of abuse in the world,” Owens said, explaining why he chose that drug to combat. “Stimulants like methamphetamine are very dangerous because they take over the pleasure centers of the brain and can lead to addiction.”
Since 1986, Owens’ work has been continually funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health. In September 2014, InterveXion was awarded two federal grants totaling $14.5 million to help with needed testing for the FDA.
The antibody medication has already been successfully tested in its first clinical safety trial in healthy adults. More research is underway to show that the antibody is safe for use in methamphetamine users. Research is also ongoing to determine whether the vaccine may be safely advanced into a clinical trial with human participants.
Owens has already started researching another drug of abuse — cathinones, better known as bath salts, which he said “are even more dangerous than methamphetamine,” because “they cause severe psychosis.” In April 2015, his UAMS team was awarded a $2.76 million grant by the NIDA to fund these studies. •