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Quincy Bioscience's Mark Underwood: Jellyfish capsule may help people live longer

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The sting of a jellyfish may hurt for hours, and, occasionally, may even be fatal, but a protein produced by one species of this brainless, heartless invertebrate could help you live longer.

At least, that's the contention of a young Madison company that is developing products based on that protein to fight diseases often related to aging.

Quincy Bioscience was established in 2004 and already has its first product being sold online and on the shelves of dozens of health-food stores nationwide.

Prevagen went on the market Sept. 1. It is being sold as a dietary supplement, although company President Mark Underwood says he eventually plans to apply for approval of the product as a pharmaceutical.

Prevagen claims to replace calcium-binding proteins in the brain that diminish with age, a process thought to be related to diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. It is based on the research of UW-Milwaukee psychology assistant professor James Moyer whose studies have shown that the protein, aequorin, kept up to 50 percent more cells functioning than a placebo in rats subjected to stroke-like conditions.

Underwood, 34, who grew up in Mosinee, had been a premed student at UW-Milwaukee studying neurological disorders in the early 1990s. His own studies were interrupted when the professor with whom he was working took a job at another university. Underwood worked at Pak Technology Corp. of America for nearly a decade, eventually serving as business development director of the Milwaukee company, which manufactures and packages industrial chemicals and consumer products.

But the concept of an anti-aging jellyfish protein was "one of those ideas you just couldn't shake," says Underwood. He found Moyer's research and joined with Mike Beaman, owner of Quincy Resource Group, a Jackson corrugated packaging company, to form Quincy Bioscience. The company purifies the protein and contracts out for its manufacture with another Wisconsin company that Underwood declined to name.

Today, just one month after Prevagen's release, Quincy Bioscience is preparing to move its laboratories and shipping operations out of the 5,000-square-foot offices at 455 Science Drive into an additional 8,000-square-foot space at 2010 Pinehurst, Middleton.

Q: Aequorin, a jellyfish protein is used to make Prevagen. Where do you get it?

A: We don't kill any jellyfish. We use a fermentation process. It's a biological product with the same genetic sequence as the jellyfish protein.

It would take 400 pounds of jellyfish to get enough of the protein for a single Prevagen capsule. We couldn't go fishing for them or set up an aquarium for them, so we make the protein.

Q: Why did you decide to sell Prevagen as a nutritional supplement instead of pursuing an application to have it approved as a pharmaceutical?

A: We know what this jellyfish protein can do, that it protects brain cells. Professor Moyer's research was presented in a poster display at the Society for Neuroscience conference in 2006. We know the protein is natural and safe. An average-size male could eat 40,000 capsules at one time without any toxicity, based on findings from the rodent tests. There's not a direct correlation to humans, but it's an indication of how much the protein can protect the cells. So we're very excited. We started testing retirement-age animals and saw a more pronounced protective effect in the older animals.

We didn't want to wait another 10 years — the time it could take to conduct clinical trials and request approval as a drug.

Q: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration review for nutritional supplements is not just quicker but also less rigorous than it is for pharmaceuticals. According to Consumer Reports magazine, "most supplements get less scrutiny from the FDA than a pack of cough drops." What does a supplement have to show?

A: It has to be natural and it has to be safe. Claims you can make (about the product) are regulated by the FDA. It requires testing and manufacturing practices similar to those for food products.

We still plan to go through the FDA new-drug approval process and will likely file an investigational new-drug application in 2009.

Q: Have you had much response to Prevagen?

A: We're getting calls from people who have just finished their first bottle. They're telling us they're more focused, more able to find their words, to finish crossword puzzles faster. That's not scientific data, it's anecdotal. Myself, I don't forget my grocery list when I'm tired and on my way home at the end of the day. Maybe it's because of other things; maybe people got a better night's sleep.

Q: So what are your projected revenues?

A: Between $5 million and $10 million for the first year. We're not profitable now, but we hope to be by the end of the first year of selling Prevagen.

Nutritional supplements are a $20 billion-a-year industry in the U.S. and growing. There are a lot of good products and some that are questionable, just as there are food products that are not good for you. I don't fault the people who buy Twinkies.

There are 78 million baby boomers in the U.S. They are all growing older. They are the market for our product.


  • President of Quincy Bioscience
  • Address: 455 Science Drive, University Research Park
  • Founded: 2004
  • Employees: 12 in Madison; 5 in the Milwaukee suburb of Jackson
  • Product: Prevagen, a nutritional supplement
  • Revenue: $3 million in angel financing in 2007; projecting $5 million to $10 million in revenue during Prevagen 's first year Web site:

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