Harvard-Born TremRx Pursues New Vaccine Technology

2/29/12Follow @arleneweintraub

Boston-based TremRx is coming out of stealth mode today with a study that describes the startup’s method of using immune cells in the skin to mobilize the body’s disease-fighting defenses. The company, founded by Harvard dermatology professor Thomas Kupper, has identified several opportunities to develop vaccines for a range of illnesses, from cancer to viruses such as hepatitis C.

TremRx was founded on discoveries by Kupper, who studies immune cells called T Resident Effector Memory cells (TREMs). In the study, published in the online edition of the journal Nature, Kupper and his team of researchers showed that these cells, which are prevalent in the skin, produced strong and durable immunity to smallpox when a version of the vaccine was delivered to the skin of animals. TremRx has developed a technology platform that’s designed to activate TREMs in the upper layers of the skin.

TremRx president Eric Stromquist, a former hedge fund manager, says the company’s goal is to change the paradigm in vaccine development. Traditional vaccines are designed to stimulate the B cell arm of the immune system to create antibodies against diseases. These vaccines, which are typically weakened versions of viruses, work in part by prompting the body to convert some immune cells into circulating “memory” T cells, which will recognize the infection in the future and help eliminate it from the body. “The whole notion of TREMs breaks with immunological dogma,” Stromquist says. “What we’ve shown is that they are in fact more protective against infection than circulating T cells.”

Stromquist says the company is pursuing a two-pronged strategy for commercializing its technology. TremRx will partner with pharmaceutical companies that want to use the startup’s technology to develop new vaccines or more effective versions of currently marketed vaccines. TremRx will also build its own pipeline of vaccines. The company has not yet revealed which diseases it’s working on, but Stromquist says the technology could be broadly applicable. Several viruses lend themselves to a TREM approach, including herpes, hepatitis, and HPV, Stromquist says. The company’s approach may also work in certain cancers. For example, Stromquist says, a TREM-based vaccine might be able to prevent melanoma from returning after the main tumor is removed surgically.

The company’s scientific advisory team includes MIT professor and (and Xconomist) Robert Langer, a prolific entrepreneur who has founded more than 17 Boston-area companies.

TremRx has been funded by angels and is currently working on raising a Series A round, Stromquist says. He says the company’s discussions with venture capitalists have been encouraging and he expects to be able to close a funding round within a year. “We feel we have a good strategy,” he says. “This whole venture is based on a significant enhancement of the understanding of how the immune system functions.”

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