Pasadena Startup, USC Researchers Announce Breakthrough Medical Technique

Published : Monday, April 15, 2019 | 4:42 AM

Researchers from the University of Southern California after collaborating with a Pasadena company have reported a breakthrough technique that could prevent damage to the jaw as a side effect suffered by some people undergoing treatment for cancer or osteoporosis.

The newly published research is an important step toward a cure for osteonecrosis of the jaw, a side effect of drugs used to combat bone loss, a USC statement this week said.

Osteonecrosis of the jaw causes severe and persistent inflammation leading to loss of bone from the jaw and has no effective prevention or cure. The risk, though small, deters some people from taking drugs needed to fight bone cancer or prevent fractures due to loss of bone density.

“This is a condition that has been excruciatingly painful and difficult to treat for more than a decade,” Charles McKenna, a professor of chemistry at USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said. “We think our new approach may provide hope for the future.”

McKenna is adjunct professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences in the USC School of Pharmacy.

The authors of the research are affiliated with the USC Center for Drug Discovery and Development at the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, the UCLA School of Dentistry and BioVinc LLC, a Pasadena-based startup biotech company.

The new study could provide an answer to the side effects caused by bisphosphonates (BPs), which doctors have prescribed for metastatic bone cancer patients and to maintain bone density in osteoporosis patients.

BPs include a range of compounds that share a remarkable ability to stick to bone like Velcro. But when used in high doses in the cancer clinic, BP drugs sometimes cause necrosis in the jaw, which often occurs after a tooth is removed, the gap doesn’t heal and the jaw begins to deteriorate.

Although the condition is very rare at the lower BP doses used to combat osteoporosis, many patients are avoiding the drugs altogether for fear of the side effects.

“The fear factor of this condition has led to severe underuse of bisphosphonates for osteoporosis so much so that we’re seeing a rise in hip fractures in elderly people, aversion to bisphosphonates in oncology clinics and liability concerns in the dental office,” McKenna said.

To solve the problem, McKenna and his team devised an elegant solution. The research team used a different BP compound, an inactive compound that could be used locally in the mouth to push the BP drug from the jawbone while leaving undisturbed the useful drug in the rest of the skeleton.

The new technique isn’t ready for clinical use in humans yet, the USC article said.

McKenna said BioVinc provided funding for the study via a National Institutes of Health small business research grant, and will be responsible for advancing the treatment to commercial clinical use.

Several of the authors of the study disclose a financial interest in BioVinc, a company specializing in “bone targeted therapeutics and diagnostics.” McKenna is the company’s academic founder.

To learn more about Biovinc LLC, visit

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