Set for growth: UM-based biotech firm looks to slow age-related skin diseases

Cofounders of DermaXon, Fanny Astruc-Diaz, left, and Philippe Diaz, have submitted a state grant to grow their upstart biotech company.

An upstart biotech company with ties to the University of Montana got a boost Wednesday from Missoula County, with commissioners approving a state grant application to fund seven new jobs, including the company’s first CEO.

DermaXon, based in Missoula, looks to slow the biological mechanisms behind aging and prevent the onset of age-related skin disease. It’s research at UM includes the biology of skin and diseases associated with aging.

“They developed a new treatment, especially for acne, and they’re almost ready to start clinical trials,” said Nicole Rush, grants manager at the Missoula Economic Partnership. “They recently secured a contract with Rodan + Fields for the Proactiv Solution treatment. They have some exciting prospects.”

The company was founded in 2013 by Fanny Astruc-Diaz and Philippe Diaz, both of whom work as research professors in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at UM.

Fanny Astruc-Diaz directs all drug delivery aspects and preclinical development for DermaXon while Philippe Diaz leads the company’s drug discovery department.

Neither could be reached Wednesday for comment, though Rush said the job creation grant approved for submittal would create seven new positions. The company has already tapped Michelle Huie as its CEO.

Huie founded VIM&VIGOR in Missoula and also claims a background in the pharmaceutical industry.

“It’s not a huge number of jobs, but it’s exciting because they’re biotech jobs, which is one of our industry focuses at MEP,” said Rush. “We really want to see that sector grow in Missoula. We’ve got the beginnings of this type of industry now.”

DermaXon joins Inimmune and Clearas Water Recovery in growing Missoula’s cluster of biotech companies. MEP identified biotech and the life sciences as a potential growth industry, one that pairs well with UM, the International Heart Institute and the Montana Cancer Institute in Missoula, among others.

“We have a large health care industry, and there’s a lot of biotech applications that could happen in Missoula if we focus on the development of new companies that are really focused on research and development, like Inimmune and DermaXon,” said Rush.

“We also have an awesome School of Pharmacy that turns out a lot of pharmacologists. It’s an opportunity to capture some of those students if we have an industry for them to join.”

Scott Whittenburg, vice president for research and creative scholarship at UM, said the school supports such translational research, where work in the lab finds a marketable use in society.

“The research being done by Fanny and Philippe Diaz at UM, and the realization of that work in their spin-out company DermaXon, is a prime example of the translational research being done in health and biomedical sciences at the university,” Whittenburg said Wednesday.

“Their research on classes of neurological and dermatological diseases is leading to treatment for several of these conditions and has the added benefit to the community of job creation.”