A Computer Guy’s Dream, Immusoft, Turns Cells Into Drug Factories

Matthew Scholz has been told many times that his idea for reprogramming the body’s immune cells to create drugs was impossible. Maybe dangerous. Maybe just dumb.

Scholz, a computer scientist with no formal biology training, could easily have been written off as a quixotic dreamer until this spring, when he got his breakout moment. The foundation started by Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, decided that Scholz’s startup, Immusoft, just might be onto something, granting it close to $400,000.

Seattle-based Immusoft has gone through a pretty amazing journey the past couple years. The company, which began as Scholz’s nights-and-weekends passion while he held down a day job doing tech support at a nonprofit, has grown into a bootstrapped biotech company. It has no venture capital backing and just four employees, but in April, the company was one of six startups to win a grant from the Thiel Foundation, which aims to support what it calls “radical scientific innovations.”

Scholz has scraped together about $900,000 now through angel investment, a federal small business grant, and foundation support. Armed with a technology license from Nobel laureate David Baltimore’s lab at Caltech, some more intellectual property from Europe, and a couple of scientific collaborations at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Immusoft has put together a plan to see if can do the unprecedented—program immune system cells to create therapeutic proteins on their own, rather than have them be delivered the traditional way through repeat injections.

“I want to turn your own cells into drug factories,” Scholz says.

Immusoft is still very much in its infancy, and may never get close to fulfilling its vision. But it is preparing for its first mouse study at the Hutch this summer. This will be the first test in mammals to see if Immusoft can do a blood draw, filter out the resting B cells of the immune system, and genetically modify them in the lab to secrete a specific therapeutic protein. The newly programmed B cells would then be injected back into the body, where Immusoft hopes they continue to pump out the protein drug, and settle into the bone marrow, where cells can live for years. That’s important, because if the newly injected, reprogrammed cells die after a few hours, then such a drug would require repeat injections, essentially defeating the purpose.

If all goes according to plan in this key experiment, Immusoft hopes to move on to monkeys, set up a meeting with the FDA, and hopefully prepare to run its first human clinical trial in about three years, Scholz says.

Alan Leong, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Washington Bothell, who got to know Scholz as a student a decade ago, says he was skeptical when his former student called him to ask for advice about this new biotech venture. Leong, who’s also an analyst with Seattle-based Biotech Stock Research, knows the odds are terribly slim, even for folks with the best scientific and business pedigrees. “I had to ask, is he really, truly bright, or is this hubris? Maybe it’s a combination of both that it takes to make this happen,” Leong says.

Scholz’s previous entrepreneurial experience was with Point B Telematics, a fleet logistics company that helped companies find the fastest routes around urban areas like Seattle. The company was acquired in 2009 by TIE Technologies for an undisclosed sum. Before Immusoft consumed much of his attention, Scholz dabbled a little with making iPhone apps “which made a little money” and had a steady gig doing tech support at the Discovery Institute.

Scholz got his inspiration to start Immusoft in 2009 after making a basic observation that many computer scientists know quite well—the human immune system adapts to fight pathogens a bit like how software and computer viruses square off. If the immune system is ultimately an information system, he wondered, then shouldn’t it be possible to reprogram cells to help them confront a virus like HIV, or some other cellular irregularity that leads to disease?

Scholz sought to learn about whether this was possible, reading lots of journal articles, and then tracking down many of the scientists by phone, by email, and at conferences to ask them about their work. He learned that … Next Page »

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