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.

Laser Hair Removal for Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS)

Can laser hair removal be an effective treatment for patients with Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS)? Photo via Good Housekeeping.

For those of you who are new to the Autoimmune Warrior blog, I have two autoimmune conditions – Sjogren’s Syndrome and Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS). Over the years, my HS has taken a backseat while I’ve dealt with my Sjogren’s symptoms.

In the past year, however, I’ve been more active about working with my dermatologist to manage this chronic autoimmune skin condition. By actively managing my HS symptoms, my hope is that I won’t move past Hurley Stage I of the disease, or even go into remission.

As I noted in my last blog post about my new Hidradenitis Suppurativa treatment plan, I’ve been working with a new dermatologist who has prescribed me a topical cream called resorcinol, in addition to the clindamycin and Hibiclens that I routinely use. Besides topical treatments, however, I’ve also started getting laser hair removal in my groin and underarms, which are the main areas where Hidradenitis Suppurativa affects me.

What does the science say?

For those who are unaware, laser hair removal has been cited as a way to reduce HS symptoms like boils and abscesses in the groin, underarms, and elsewhere in the body’s axillary regions. The logic is that, by using a laser to destroy your hair follicles, the follicle cannot get clogged; this is important, since, as my dermatologist explained, follicular occlusion is one of the main parts of the disease.

In fact, studies have shown that patients with Hidradenitis have seen improvement in their HS symptoms after receiving laser hair removal treatments. A 2011 study found that when 18 patients were treated in a single area affected by Hidradenitis twice a week with intense pulsed light over four weeks, they experienced ‘significant improvement’ in the mean examination score of their lesions. The patients also reported being ‘highly satisfied’ with their treatment.

Laser hair removal in HS patients

There are different types of lasers that can be used for laser hair removal. Some of the more effective ones have been found to be the long-pulsed lasers such as the IPL and Nd:YAG laser. The Nd:YAG laser in particular has found to be more effective on darker skin tones; this is because the laser needs to distinguish between your hair and skin color in order to work. Some clinical trials using the CO2 laser have also shown promise in the treatment of HS, but larger study samples are needed.

In addition to these studies, anecdotal evidence from other HS patients is what motivated me to move forward with getting laser hair removal to treat my hidradenitis. Reading the experiences of other bloggers who are living with the condition and have found positive results after laser hair removal gave me hope that I could experience the same benefits.

Drawbacks of laser hair removal for Hidradenitis Suppurativa

There are, however, some drawbacks to consider when getting laser hair removal to treat your HS. If you are at Hurley Stage III of the disease, for example, laser hair removal may not be the best option for you, since your skin is highly sensitive, and the laser may exacerbate inflammation and cause undue pain to the area(s) affected. Also, the laser may not be able to penetrate scar tissue that has formed as a result of your HS. For patients at an advanced stage of the disease, wide-excision surgery or deroofing may be better options instead, in combination with antibiotics or even immunosuppressants like Humira. In summation, laser hair removal is a more practical option for those with Hurley Stage I or II of the disease.

Also, though laser hair removal technology continues to evolve, if you have a darker skin tone and dark hair, or a lighter skin tone and light-colored hair, you may not be a good candidate for laser hair removal, since the laser may not be able to distinguish between your hair and skin.

Another drawback is the expense. Laser hair removal can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the type of laser used, the number of treatments necessary to see results, and the size of the area. Getting your laser treatment done at a medical clinic by a doctor or nurse, or at a beauty salon by a certified technician, may impact the price you pay. Furthermore, many health insurance plans do not cover the cost of treatment, since, despite the research out there, laser hair removal is still not a universally recognized treatment for hidradenitis suppurativa, and is viewed as a cosmetic procedure.

Finally, laser hair removal can take a long time. At the clinic I am going to, laser hair treatments are usually delivered every 4-8 weeks, depending on the area being treated. I am getting treated every 6 weeks, and while I think it is worth it to see results, patients looking for a more immediate change may be disappointed with such slow progress.

Should I get laser hair removal to treat my HS?

In conclusion, whether or not you should move forward with getting laser hair removal to treat your hidradenitis suppurativa symptoms is really a decision that should be made between you and your dermatologist. While HS is not an easy condition to live with, as biotechnology and pharmaceutical treatments evolve, and as patients and medical professionals become more aware of alternative treatment methods, there is hope for those living with HS.

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