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.

Father Battles Kelch-11 Encephalitis, a Rare Autoimmune Disorder

Eric Walters works with his physical therapist to regain strength and mobility, after being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease (Image courtesy of USA Today).

Eric Walters was a fit, 45-year-old husband and father, living his best life in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. An avid mountain biker and ice fisherman who embraced Wisconsin’s chilly weather and loved the outdoors, Walters began experiencing some concerning symptoms in January 2020.

He worked as an electrician, and had many busy days on the job. One day when he woke up to go to work, he found himself extremely dizzy. After two weeks of dizziness, he decided to go to urgent care, thinking that he had an ear infection.

Unfortunately, Walters never made it to the clinic. Instead he passed out on the job, and was transported to the ER. After receiving a steroid injection and told he was suffering from vertigo, he was discharged without further explanation. Doctors at the time didn’t know it, but Walters was suffering from a much more dangerous condition than vertigo.

It turns out that Walters had developed testicular cancer, but even he didn’t know it. His immune system had gone after the cancer and eradicated it, leaving behind a non-cancerous mass of cells. But, even after the cancer was gone, Walters’ immune system went on the hunt for more KLH11, also called Kelch proteins, which are the cells associated with testicular cancer. Because Kelch proteins are also located in the brain stem, his immune system went after his brain as well.

When Walters began experiencing more dizziness, his doctors performed an MRI, revealing a lesion on his brain stem. At the time, his physicians thought he was suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS), a reasonable assumption given that this autoimmune condition also causes scarring lesions on the brain.

Walters was put on a treatment for MS, but continued to experience scary symptoms like double vision, dizziness, and a locking jaw. His facial muscles began to degrade, and just breathing took considerable effort. He received another MRI, which revealed that the single lesion on his brain stem had grown even larger. However, this was inconsistent with typical MS symptoms, which would result in multiple lesions.

At that point, Walters’ medical care team realized that they were dealing with something other than MS. He was then transferred to the Mayo Clinic’s Rochester, New York campus, where a friend of his had received excellent treatment. There he underwent a full battery of new tests, including an ultrasound and CT scan, which revealed the non-cancerous mass indicating that he had had testicular cancer. Combined with his symptoms, Walters was diagnosed with testicular cancer-associated paraneoplastic encephalitis, also known as Kelch-11 encephalitis for short.

Relatively little is known about Kelch-11 disease, which was only discovered by researchers in 2019. It is, however, known to be an autoimmune disease that causes severe neurological symptoms in men diagnosed with testicular cancer, affecting their limb movements, vision, and speech.

With his new diagnosis, Walters’ doctor prescribed him stronger steroids and chemotherapy to tamper down his rogue immune system. He also was inserted with a diaphragmatic pacer, which helps send signals to his lungs to keep breathing, along with a ventilator. Though living with Kelch-11 hasn’t been easy, Walters’ son Sam and wife Mary are what keep him going.

“We’ll become the poster child of Kelch if it means that other people don’t have to go through this,” says his wife Mary Walters. She wants to raise awareness for Kelch-11 disease, so others can get an accurate diagnosis and the treatment they deserve. According to Walters’ physician, Dr. Divyanshu Dubey, there are only 60 known patients who have been identified with this disease in the past few years.

As for Walters, he and his wife have faith that he will recover. “I’m just starting the healing process now,” he said. “Now I really get to fight.”

If you would like to contribute to helping Eric Walters and his family fight this devastating autoimmune disease, his brother has set up a GoFundMe fundraiser with the objective of raising $25,000.

The Connection Between Blood Type and Autoimmune Disease

Image courtesy of Medical News Today.

Medical researchers have long asked the question: Is there a connection between one’s blood type and autoimmune disease?

Clinical studies have had varied results, mostly due to the small sample sizes of each study. Though this area needs more research, this blog post will cover some of the research that has been published so far.

Study: Rheumatic Diseases and ABO Blood Types

A 2017 study in Turkey sought to find a link between particular blood types and the incidence of rheumatic disease. Rheumatic disease includes over 200 conditions that cause pain in your joints, connective tissue, tendons, and cartilage; many of these conditions are autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s Syndrome, and systemic lupus erythematosus.

The researchers assessed 823 patients, with the following distribution of blood types: 42.5% patients had type A blood, 33.2% had type O blood, 15.4% had type B, and 8.9% had type AB. Each patient in the study had at least one of the following nine rheumatic diseases:

  • Behçet’s disease
  • Familial Mediterranean fever (FMF)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • Spondyloarthropathy
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
  • Systemic sclerosis (SSc)
  • Sjogren’s syndrome (SjS)
  • Undifferentiated connective tissue disease
  • Vasculitis

Their study found that there was a significant difference in the distribution of blood types among those with rheumatic diseases. The most common autoimmune diseases among those with type A blood were: rheumatoid arthritis, spondyloarthropathy, vasculitis, Behçet’s disease, and undifferentiated connective tissue disease.

The most common autoimmune diseases among those with type O blood were: systemic lupus erythematosus, systemic sclerosis, and Sjogren’s syndrome. The researchers also noted that SLE, SSc and SjS are the connective tissue disorders frequently observed with antinuclear antibodies (ANA). The rheumatic disease familial Mediterranean fever was also found to be most common in those with type O blood.

Those with blood type AB were observed to be the least likely to suffer from rheumatic disease. However, it should be noted that type AB blood is also the most rare blood type in general, and represented the smallest amount of patients studied.

In addition, it was found that there was a significant difference in the distribution of Rh factor in rheumatic diseases. Of those with rheumatic diseases, 92.2% patients were Rh positive and only 7.8% patients were Rh negative. However, it should once again be noted that a positive Rhesus Factor (Rh+) is also more common among the general population than a negative Rhesus Factor (Rh-).

Is there a link between autoimmune disease and blood type?

So, if you have blood types A or O, does this mean you are more likely to get an autoimmune disease? The researchers who conducted this study concluded: “…we believe that the higher incidence of different rheumatic diseases in different blood types is associated with different genetic predispositions.”

In other words, since blood type is inherited (i.e. genetic), the results of the study point to a likely connection between certain genes and the increased predisposition for developing an autoimmune or rheumatic disease.

Do you know your blood type?

I, for one, do not know my own blood type. This is somewhat ironic, since I’ve undergone many blood tests as part of my Sjogren’s syndrome diagnosis, as well as for monitoring my liver enzyme levels while taking certain medications to control my autoimmune symptoms.

I actually did ask my primary care doctor what my blood type was the last time he ordered a test, and he advised that finding out your blood type is not a common part of the blood testing routine, and thus, he didn’t know what mine was.

If you have an autoimmune disease (or multiple diseases), and you know your blood type, comment below and let us know, are your condition and blood type consistent with the results of this study?