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.

3 BioTech Companies You Can Invest In to Fund Autoimmune Disease Research

At Autoimmune Warrior, we believe that scientific research and development holds the key to unlocking new, innovative treatments and ultimately, a cure for autoimmune disease. In today’s blog post, we’ll explore three different biotechnology companies that are pioneering research about autoimmune diseases.

Why should companies research autoimmune diseases?

According to the American Autoimmune Diseases & Related Disorders Association (AARDA), there are over 100 different types of autoimmune diseases affecting 50 million people in the US alone. This demonstrates that autoimmune diseases are one of the most prevalent conditions nationwide. Furthermore, the AARDA reports that autoimmunity is one of the top 10 leading causes for death among American women. These figures show the high impact that medical research could have on autoimmune patients.

There is, of course, a financial incentive for biotech companies as well. A Research & Markets report indicated that as of 2017, the global autoimmune disease therapeutics market was estimated to be worth over US$109 billion. This figure was projected to grow to US$153 billion by 2025. Part of this growth has been attributed to the rise in autoimmune diseases among the general population and specific groups; although it’s been argued that medical professionals are becoming more aware of autoimmune conditions, and therefore, are simply getting better at diagnosing patients.

How can I help fund research & development?

If you or someone you love suffers from an autoimmune condition, you’ll know how important it is to find effective treatment options. As a result, you may consider investing your hard-earned dollars in companies that are pioneering autoimmune disease research. Below are three companies that I have personally researched that are contributing to this cause.

1. Landos Biopharma

Landos Biopharma is a Virginia-based company started by former Virginia Tech inflammation & immunology professor Josep Bassaganya-Riera, PhD. Landos is considered to be clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company focused on the discovery and development of oral therapeutics for patients with autoimmune diseases. In particular, the company is developing therapeutics for those with autoimmune diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, such as ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease.

Landos, which was founded in 2017, is a publicly-listed company on the NASDAQ stock exchange under the ticker symbol LABP. As of writing, the stock sits at just above US$12 per share.

2. UCB

UCB is a Brussels, Belgium-based multinational company, with a long history of research and development in the area of immunology. Some of the company’s autoimmune disease research areas include: rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, lupus, and myasthenia gravis (MG). The company actively works with clinics worldwide to recruit for clinical studies with autoimmune patients; some of the studies they are actively recruiting for at the time of writing (June 2021) include patients with hidradenitis suppurativa, lupus, psoriasis and myasthenia gravis.

UCB is a 90-year-old company, and is publicly listed on the EBR stock exchange under the ticker symbol UCB. As of writing, the stock sits at just above 85 euros per share.

3. Abbvie

Abbvie is a Chicago-based multinational company that was spun off from Abbott Laboratories. Abbvie has been striving to advance the standard of care in rheumatology for more than 20 years. The company says that they are focused on developing therapeutics for patients with chronic diseases, which is said to account for 75 percent of all healthcare costs. Some of the company’s autoimmune research areas include: rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, psoriasis and multiple sclerosis. The company has already developed a number of well-known anti-inflammatory treatments, including HUMIRA (adalimumab).

Abbvie was spun-off in 2013, and is a publicly-listed company on the NYSE under the ticker symbol ABBV. As of writing, the stock sits at just above US$114 per share.

Would you consider investing in these biotech companies? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below!

Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to provide financial advice, but to raise awareness about companies conducting research & development towards advancing autoimmune disease therapeutics. Always consult with your physician before beginning a new treatment plan.