By Henry Mortimer, Editor-at-Large
It may seem like science fiction to think that a drug designed to treat allergies induced by Japanese red cedar pollen may be a key ingredient in the fight against infectious diseases and even cancer. But the concept is nothing to sneeze at, says William Hearl, PhD.
“The antibody-as-a-drug business is absolutely booming,” says Hearl, founder and CEO of Immunomic Therapeutics (ITI).
The Rockville, Md.-based firm develops DNA-based vaccines that have the potential to harness the body’s natural disease-fighting power. Hearl says the company’s flagship technology, the LAMP-Vax platform, could potentially enable effective vaccinations for a wide spectrum of diseases with unmet need.
“[Some] very challenging diseases out there have no good vaccine solutions,” says Hearl, who began shepherding the commercial development of LAMP technology, with the help of Dr. Tom August at Johns Hopkins University, in 2006. “We were trying to find a way to optimize how to take genetic information and turn it into antibody tools, and how to get the immune system to effectively respond.”
The LAMP-Vax platform works by encoding the Lysosomal Associated Membrane Protein (LAMP), an endogenous protein in humans, to utilize the body’s natural biochemistry to develop a broad immune response, including antibody production, cytokine release and critical immunological memory.
The potential for success is exciting, says Hearl, whose extensive experience in intellectual property management and business development helped broker a sub-license of the LAMP technology to Geron Corporation within 30 days of initiating operations and subsequent license agreements, valued at over $300 million.
“We realized the opportunities in allergies represented our best chance to prove that LAMP worked in humans for not a huge amount of money but targeted a very substantial medical need and market opportunity,” he says.
In 2015, ITI entered into a licensing agreement with Astellas Pharma in Tokyo to explore the use of the LAMP-Vax platform to treat allergies induced by Japanese red cedar pollen, and is now focused on cancer immunotherapy. Last December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Fast Track designation for ITI’s drug candidate ASP0892, a new DNA vaccine program based on the LAMP-Vax platform, for the mitigation of severe hypersensitivity reactions due to peanut allergy.
Hearl, who sits on the boards of both the Maryland Technology Council and Biohealth Innovations, believes collaboration extends well beyond the lab.
“We have a goal stated for the region that we will make Maryland a top-flight biotech center in the United States,” he says. “As I see it, we are bringing the right resources together to make Maryland a biotech hub that any part of the country would be envious of.”
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