Berkeley Alumni Create Startup Focused on Autoimmune Disease Therapies

Geo Guillen, Marco Lobba, and Matthew Francis, the co-founders of autoimmune disease biotechnology company Catena Biosciences. Image courtesy of Berkeley News.

Marco Lobba was pursuing his PhD in Chemistry at UC Berkeley when he and his lab partners made a discovery. He had been studying the modification of proteins when he happened upon a technique called “oxidative coupling,” which modifies proteins so that they can be fused together. He and his partners also found that the enzyme tyrosinase could be used to make oxidative coupling much faster and more efficient. Tyrosinase is a naturally-occurring enzyme, found in fruits and vegetables, and is responsible for turning apples and avocadoes brown as they ripen.

The accelerated oxidative coupling method could be used to fuse proteins together, faster and more selectively, than any other method currently in use. This opens the door to treating autoimmune diseases, which attack the body by convincing a person’s antibodies to attack their own healthy cells. Using this discovery, scientists can attach ‘safe’ signals to healthy cells, helping the body’s immune system identify its own cells and refrain from attacking them.

“Think of it almost like Pavlov’s dogs,” explains Lobba. “Or tricking children into eating their vegetables by covering them in cheese,” he elaborated. “If you present the immune system with something it likes — at the same time as something it is attacking — it starts to associate that target as a good thing.”

Lobba presented his discovery during a course on entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. During the presentation, fellow classmate Geo Guillen saw how passionate he was about his research, and the value of his discovery in the treatment of autoimmune disease. It was this purpose that drove the pair to work together alongside Berkeley Chemistry professor, Matthew Francis, to co-found a startup called Catena Biosciences, focused on making autoimmune disease therapies.

Their startup launched remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies have come into focus for the role their organizations play in helping to keep our communities healthy and thriving. The startup has been valued at $10 million for its innovative technology and ground-breaking research.

Guillen commented on his company’s founding, saying: “We identified that the autoimmune market is one that is particularly ripe for disruption because a lot of the approaches to treating autoimmune disease focus on the symptoms, instead of the root cause. It’s a pretty large, untapped market.”

Catena Biosciences is aiming to conduct pre-clinical trials by the end of August 2021, which will test the impact of their therapeutics on autoimmune disease reactions in patients. Next month, the company will be looking to raise more funds for their startup to help them commercialize the treatment. The founders’ hope is that they can have a positive impact on those living with autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis, lupus, and Type 1 diabetes.

The company has been awarded the 2021 Berkeley Big Ideas Award for their entrepreneurial endeavors. To learn more about Catena Biosciences, read about the company on the Berkeley News blog.

7 Anti-Inflammatory Foods that You Can Grow in Your Home Garden

In this article, we explore seven anti-inflammatory foods that you can grow in your home garden.

According to the US National Library of Medicine, inflammation is your body’s normal physiological defense against pathogen infection. In normal circumstances, the inflammatory process ends quickly; but, with many chronic conditions, the immune system’s response continues well after an infection is present, leading to significant tissue and organ damage. This is the case with many autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), type 1 diabetes, and more.

Many autoimmune disease patients are forced to turn to pharmaceutical drugs to calm their overactive immune systems. Unfortunately, many of these immunosuppressant drugs are not without significant side effects. Plus, by decreasing your body’s ability to fight infections, patients may find that they’re vulnerable to bacteria and viruses, something that’s especially of concern now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, what if there was a way to fight inflammation naturally, without having to turn to prescription medications with difficult side effects? According to Harvard Health Publishing, some of the best anti-inflammatory compounds can be found not in your local pharmacy, but in the grocery aisle.

“Many experimental studies have shown that components of foods or beverages may have anti-inflammatory effects,” explains Dr. Frank Hu, Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health. Anti-inflammatory food also helps individuals to maintain a healthy weight – something important, since weight gain is a risk factor for inflammation. However, even when studies controlled for obesity, the effects of inflammation remained: “Some of the food components or ingredients may have independent effects on inflammation over and above increased caloric intake,” Dr. Hu says.

So, what are these anti-inflammatory foods that you can grow at home? Check out the full list, below!

1. Tomatoes

Tomatoes were first on Harvard Health Publishing‘s list of anti-inflammatory foods. According to Healthline, tomatoes are an excellent source of lycopene, an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have also shown that lycopene may be beneficial for reducing pro-inflammatory compounds related to several types of cancer. Another study found that women with excess weight who drank tomato juice significantly decreased their inflammatory markers.

Tomatoes are also some of the easiest plants to grow. I grew up in Southwestern Canada, an area that isn’t exactly known for warm weather or sunshine. Despite the climate, our family was able to easily grow cherry tomatoes on our small, north-facing balcony during the spring and summer. Now that I live in Southern California, tomatoes grow even more abundantly, and we’re growing both cherry and heirloom varieties.

Pro tip- if you’re looking to increase lycopene absorption, consider cooking your tomatoes in olive oil. This is because lycopene is a carotenoid, which is a nutrient that is better absorbed in combination with a fat.

This leads us to the next item on our list…

2. Olives

Olives are rich in monounsaturated fats, which are heart-healthy fats that combat damaging inflammation. It’s no wonder then, that olives and olive oil are staples in the mediterranean diet, a healthy eating lifestyle followed by many supercentenarian communities.

Olives and olive oil also contain oleocanthal, an antioxidant that has been compared by scientists to ibuprofen, the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) commonly taken to combat pain and inflammation. Extra virgin olive oil has even more anti-inflammatory benefits compared to more refined types of olive oil.

Olive trees grow best in a subtropical, mediterranean climate in which winters are mild and summers are long, dry and warm. The best climate for olive trees would be zones 10 and 11, though certain varieties of olive trees can tolerate zones 8 or 9. Then, once you’ve grown olives, you can use an oil press machine to extract the oils from the pitted fruit. We live in zone 10a and are currently growing an olea europaea, which is the European variety.

Of course, if you don’t live in an ideal climate for growing olives, then not to worry – olives and extra virgin olive oil are commonly found in grocery stores all over the world.

3. Leafy Greens

Green, leafy vegetables are next up on the list. Spinach, kale and collard greens are all easy-to-grow vegetables that possess powerful, anti-inflammatory properties. According to the Arthritis Foundation, these vegetables are high in vitamins like A, C and K which protect your cells against damaging free radicals. They are also high in calcium, which helps promote bone health.

In our garden, we’re currently growing spinach and red chard. Not only do these vegetables grow extremely fast, they also are quite hardy across different climates, and produce an abundant, constant harvest. Plus, leafy greens aren’t just for salads – you can throw them in your smoothie or protein shake, in soups and stews, stirfries, and even scramble them up with eggs. The possibilities are endless!

3. Cruciferous Vegetables

Cruciferous veggies include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, radishes, rutabaga, turnips, kohlrabi, watercress and bok choy. These vegetables have many of the vitamins and minerals found in other leafy greens, plus the added benefit of a phytochemical called sulphoraphane, which has been shown to block the inflammatory process, and may slow cartilage damage in osteoarthritis (OA), according to studies done on mice.

In lab studies, sulphoraphane has also been shown to stimulate enzymes in the body that detoxify carcinogens before they can damage one’s cells. Two other compounds found in cruciferous vegetables called indole 3-carbinol and crambene are also believed to activate detoxifying enzymes.

Cruciferous vegetables belong to the brassica family, and are best suited to regions with mild summers, cool springs and fall temperatures. This means that you don’t have to live in a tropical or subtropical area to be able to grow these anti-inflammatory foods.

4. Berries

Berries contain antioxidants called anthocyanins, which are compounds that have anti-inflammatory effects and may reduce your risk of disease. Studies have shown that people who ate berries consistently had lower levels of certain inflammatory markers in their blood. Other studies have shown that individuals who consume berries also had higher levels of natural killer (NK) cells that kept their immune system functioning properly.

Though many different varieties of berries exist, the most common are strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. While many berry varieties are native to the wet Pacific Northwest, berries like strawberries can be successfully grown in drier climates like California and Mexico when given enough water. Here in Southern California, we have been able to successfully grow both strawberries and blueberries during the wetter winter months, and recently planted raspberry and blackberry bushes as well.

5. Mushrooms

Mushrooms contain a property called phenols, which have been shown to provide protection against damaging inflammation. Other anti-inflammatory properties found in mushrooms include polysaccharides, terpenoids, phenolic compounds, and many other low molecular weight molecules. Lion’s mane mushrooms have also been found to reduce low-grade, chronic inflammation linked to metabolic disorders like obesity. Thanks to its healing properties, fungi has often been used in traditional medicine across different parts of Asia and Africa.

Some easy-to-cook mushroom varieties include white button, crimini, portabella, oyster, lion’s mane, shiitake, morels and truffles. Though you may be thinking, ‘how can I grow mushrooms in my home garden?’ It’s actually easier than you think! We have used a mushroom grow kit from Back to the Roots to grow both oyster mushrooms and lion’s mane mushrooms at home in as little as two weeks!

6. Grapes

Grapes, like berries, also contain high levels of anthocyanins, which have anti-inflammatory effects. Consumption of grapes has been shown to reduce the risk of many conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and eye disorders. Grapes are also a staple in the mediterranean diet, as well as moderate levels of heart-healthy red wine. In fact, cannonau red wine has touted for its antioxidant benefits by supercentenarian researchers in the blue zones of Italy and Greece, due to its artery-scrubbing flavonoids.

Grapevines grow best in areas with long, warm summers and rainy winters. This is why only certain parts of the world are known for producing the best grapes for wine-making: the Bordeaux region of France, Tuscany, Italy, the Napa Valley in California, La Rioja in Spain, the Colchuaga Valley in Chile, and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada. While I don’t anticipate that we’ll be making any wine at home, we are growing both a red and green grapevine in our California garden, and so far, both have taken off quite well.

7. Turmeric

Last but certainly not least, turmeric is one of the best plants to combat inflammation. This is because turmeric contains a property called curcumin, a powerful, anti-inflammatory nutrient found to help those suffering from arthritis, diabetes, and other conditions causing joint pain.

Turmeric resembles a root vegetable, and once harvested, it can be dried out and ground to make a spice. Turmeric is commonly used in South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Being part East Indian myself, I know that it’s a staple in Indian curries, as well as in Ayurvedic medicine, which has been practiced for thousands of years in India.

However, many individuals with joint pain opt to take curcumin supplements, rather than grow turmeric at home or buying the spice at the grocery store. This is because it can be challenging to get enough curcumin through eating turmeric, unless you consume a lot of it. Plus, curcumin has been found to be more easily absorbed when taken in combination with piperine, a compound found in black pepper. So the benefit of taking a curcumin supplement is that it often has piperine added to aid absorption.

Do you grow any of these anti-inflammatory plants in your home garden? Let us know in the comments below!

Please note, this content and any products cited in it are for informational purposes only. Autoimmune Warrior does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

March is Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month

According to the American Autoimmune & Related Diseases Association (AARDA), March is officially Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month (ADAM)! During this month, the organization works to raise awareness about autoimmune diseases among the general public. With increased awareness about autoimmune diseases, the AARDA says that they will be able to secure more funding for medical research, new treatment options, and improved patient diagnostics.

According to the AARDA, there are over 100 known autoimmune diseases, which are responsible for causing widespread chronic illness and pain. While many individuals have heard of at least one autoimmune disease, like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, or Crohn’s disease, few members of the general public know that these conditions are autoimmune in nature, and all stem from the commonality of an overactive immune system.

There is also widespread misinformation about the term ‘autoimmune’. I once read on the Reddit forum r/autoimmune about a woman who, during a doctor’s appointment, told a nurse that she had an autoimmune disease. The nurse thought that this meant that the patient had HIV/AIDS, which is not an autoimmune disease, but rather an immunodeficiency caused by a virus. These misconceptions about autoimmune disease are another reason why it’s important to raise awareness and educate the public – and even healthcare professionals – about this cause.

While the exact number of autoimmune disease patients is unknown, it’s estimated that autoimmune conditions impact over 24 million Americans. An additional 8 million Americans have auto-antibodies, blood molecules that may predispose them to developing an autoimmune disease in the future. This isn’t counting the many individuals who go undiagnosed as a result of their symptoms being dismissed, a misdiagnosis, or due to their healthcare provider lacking knowledge about autoimmune disease.

Autoimmune diseases are also a leading cause of death and disability. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading allergy and disease expert, estimated back in 2001 that autoimmune disease treatment costs in the US exceeded $100 billion annually. While this may seem like a staggering figure, it’s possible that the true cost is much higher, since, as noted above, many individuals go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed, and new autoimmune diseases are being discovered with each passing year. Furthermore, a more recent 2020 study showed that the incidence of autoimmune disease is on the rise in the US – so these cost figures (which are now 20 years old), are most likely continuing to increase.

The fact that autoimmune diseases pose an extreme burden on our healthcare system is just another reason that it’s important for the general public to be educated about these conditions, and why more resources need to be dedicated towards research and finding a cure.

So what can you do to help? If you or someone you love has an autoimmune disease, consider raising awareness (with the patient’s permission, of course), by posting about it on social media with the hashtag #ADAM for Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month. By sharing your story or the stories of others, you can raise awareness and be a voice for the millions of people suffering from autoimmune diseases worldwide.

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