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.

Carrie Ann Inaba Takes Leave of Absence Due to Autoimmune Diseases

Carrie Ann Inaba has said that she is taking a leave of absence from her TV hosting role to focus on her health.

Carrie Ann Inaba, TV host on CBS’ The Talk and judge on ABC’s hit show Dancing with the Stars opened up about her struggle living with autoimmune diseases and chronic illnesses on her blog, Carrie Ann Conversations.

The Emmy award-nominated TV personality said that she has been diagnosed with several different autoimmune diseases and chronic conditions over the years, including Sjogren’s Syndrome, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) and Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), and she also has the markers for Antiphospholipid Syndrome (APS), which causes blood clots. The 53-year-old dancer and choreographer says she also struggles with fibromyalgia and spinal stenosis.

As a result of her various autoimmune conditions, Inaba has taken a leave of absence from her role on The Talk so that she can focus on her health, reports MedPage Today.

Talking about her health journey, Inaba said: “Even if we are fortunate enough to get a diagnosis, we can quickly end up with more questions than answers. Often when it comes to autoimmune conditions there is no perfect solution or clear path forward.”

Inaba continued, explaining: “Coping with autoimmune conditions can sometimes feel quite lonely. When I first got diagnosed, some encouraged me to keep my struggles to myself, but I’ve found that it’s always been better to be honest about my needs and realities than to stay silent. I believe strongly in sharing my journey, my solutions, and the things that have helped me.”

In this spirit, Inaba has shared on her blog the products that have helped her cope with her autoimmune disease symptoms – including eye dryness, mouth dryness, joint pain, fatigue, brain fog and more – so that others can benefit from these products and see if they work for them.

This isn’t the first time that Carrie Ann Inaba has opened up about her health struggles. The starlet previously posted on Instagram about how she felt ashamed of her autoimmune diseases, and wanting “…to be what people see. And people see a healthy person, from the outside.” However, confronting her health problems made Inaba reflect on who she is as a person, besides just her identity as a “sexy dancer chick.”

From all of us at Autoimmune Warrior, we want to thank Carrie Ann for opening up about her health journey as an #AutoimmuneWarrior, and raising awareness about the 80+ autoimmune diseases affecting over 23 million Americans. Because of celebrities like her, more people among the general population are learning about autoimmune conditions, and why extensive research is needed to find better treatments, and eventually, a cure.