Local biotech startup wants to turn body's cells into drug factories

Matthew Scholz's past entrepreneurial projects haveincludedsoftware for mobile apps and GPS-based logistics. That may make it easier to understand why his latest business venture in biotechnology would still involve some programming basics.

It struck me that the way the body attacks a pathogen is similar to the way a computer attacks a password, Scholz said. You have this idea of immunity memory. If you get a vaccine, your body remembers it and suddenly the disease that used to kill you won't even give you the sniffles. And I thought, well, if it remembers that, where does it store the information, and why can't we change it?So we really set about treating disease from an information-based perspective.

The result isa new way of delivering medicines to patients:remove some of their B cells (the ones that produce disease-fighting antibodies), tinker with their genetic code so that they'll produce medicines, and then reinsert them into the patient. Immusoft CEOScholz says thistreatment platform will beless expensive, more efficient and longer lasting.

Scholz says this is not conventional gene therapy involving stem cells. Ours relies on the cells that are floating around in your blood anyway, and so they don't expand a whole bunch, they're very predictable, so basically we're just making your cells into drug factories.

Immusoft's small team of in-house researchers works on the treatment in a shared lab facility for biotech startupsin Fremont. But it is also working with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. The latter organization did Immusoft's proof-of-concept studies involving HIV.

Some people will get HIV and not get sick, or get sick very slowly, and they make very powerful antibodies that will neutralize the virus even when it tries to mutate and escape, he said. We know the source code for that and we know the gene sequence that makes it, and even though no one's been able to elicit it with a vaccine, we can put the source code right into your cells and they will execut it and make the antibodies for you.

The core technology was developed at the California Institute of Technology. Immusoft has received research grants from the National Institutes of Health and Peter Thiel's Breakout Labs (Thiel is the co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook). Scholz has since expanded the possible range of treatment to include lethal genetic diseases such as MPS-I. The company has already tested the treatment in mice, and Scholz believes it can then move straight to human trials because of the nature of the treatment. There'sa precedent with the FDA, he said.

Scholz's job now is to raise the millions needed for those Phase I clinical trials, and that effort takes him back to his earlier entrepreneurial projects. He is in a unique position to contrast the funding environment for biotechs vs. the hardware and software startups that get so much attention in Seattle.

One thing Inoticed when I moved out of the tech space into bio?There weren't nearly the networking resources and funding available here that there is in the tech space, he said. 'So I spend a fair amount of time in the Bay Area.

Seattle doesn't lack for world-class research inacademic and scientific/medical facilities, but I think a lot of the early stage funding is what we could use more of. Our region could benefit greatly from that if it existed.


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