Tiny technology has huge potential to conquer autoimmune diseases
We as humans rely on our immune systems to keep us healthy – but in some individuals, it does just the opposite. For millions of people with autoimmune diseases, the immune system mistakes some part of the body as a pathogen and attacks its own cells. The consequences can be varied; everything from mild skin conditions that resolve on their own to life-threatening disorders like type 1 diabetes, lupus, and multiple sclerosis. The treatment of autoimmune diseases is typically with immunosuppression – medication that decreases the immune response. But immunosuppression is not ideal, because the immune system is vital in protecting against infections.
Dr. Pere Santamaria, founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Parvus Therapeutics, has dedicated his career to understanding how autoimmunity works and how it can be treated, particularly in the case of type 1 diabetes.
Because autoimmune diseases are still not very well understood, most immune-based therapies have a history of failure. Other than the ground-breaking discovery of insulin as a treatment for diabetes, patients with the disease have not had an effective treatment available to them. Santamaria was well aware of this when he began his research. Based out of the University of Calgary, Santamaria led a research team in a mission to halt the autoimmune response that causes type 1 diabetes, but without damaging the immune cells that regulate the immune system. They focused on developing a highly targeted immunotherapy, one that could address the internal tug-of-war between aggressive T cells that want to cause the disease and weaker T cells that want to stop it from occurring.
Santamaria and his team found a way to activate and multiply the “fighter” cells while simultaneously turning “off” the confused attacker cells, by introducing a specific immune system protein in a very special way.
The protein itself wasn’t the innovation. In fact, introduced to mice on its own, the protein had no effect on the disease. What was different was the use of nanoparticles – particles that are thousands of times smaller than a normal cell. Santamaria coated the nanoparticles with the proteins, and with this novel form of delivery, the proteins were able to successfully turn on the fighter cells and turn off the attacker cells. For all intents and purposes, the coated nanoparticles – dubbed Navacims by Santamaria and his team – functioned like a vaccine, in that they allowed the body to produce its own defences. After a single course of Navacim treatment, 70% of the mice in Santamaria’s test group were disease-free, and the remaining 30% were “cured” after a few extra weeks of treatment. Perhaps most importantly, the treatment had no adverse effect on the subjects’ immune systems.
With this exciting technology in hand, Santamaria approached the University of Calgary’s technology transfer office, University Technologies International (UTI; now Innovate Calgary), to commercialize the innovation. The intellectual property was appropriately filed, and Parvus Therapeutics was born.
Small in name, massive in potential
“The word ‘parvus’ may literally translate to ‘small’, but the potential of our technology is anything but. This treatment may someday conquer many autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.” – Phil Coggins, Ph.D., President and CEO of Parvus Therapeutics
Parvus got its name while under UTI’s wing. The moniker literally translates to “small” – homage to the tiny stature of the nanoparticles themselves. But the massive potential of Parvus’ technology was obvious to everyone working at UTI, including Jord Cowan, who eventually left the organization to become Parvus’ Vice President of Scientific Operations. Soon afterwards, Parvus officially spun out from UTI as its own privately-held entity, and Dr. Phil Coggins joined as the company’s President and CEO.
With a corporate structure in place, Parvus is now focused on advancing Santamaria’s technology to clinical trials. The unique composition of the innovation poses interesting questions to regulators. Since the nanoparticles technically act as a “device” for delivering the proteins, the technology could be considered a medical device as well as an immunotherapy.
Either way, the medical community is eager for the treatment. Cowan answers several emails each month from people asking if the treatment is ready for humans. Because of the severity and ubiquity of autoimmune diseases, the worldwide market is highly receptive to immunotherapies. And while Santamaria’s technology initially focused on reversing type 1 diabetes, it holds promise to treat countless other autoimmune diseases.
Building to last
The Parvus team truly believes that the success of the company is about the right people – and knowing when to say no to the wrong ones. Parvus recently received a multi-million dollar offer from a large pharmaceutical company, but decided to turn it down. “It just wasn’t in our best interests,” said Coggins. “We want to preserve the integrity of our company.” It proved to be the right choice. Parvus is now close to signing an agreement with a venture capitalist for funding that will keep the company going through the all-important clinical trial process. With the continued support of other organizations, including Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International (JDRF), the Government of Canada, and the Government of Alberta, the Parvus team is confident that they can grow the business the way they want to.
There are still some hurdles to clear – toxicology testing, regulatory approvals, the development of a manufacturing process, and so on – but Parvus is well on its way to putting its stamp on the global medical community. And for the millions of people who suffer from an autoimmune disease, the impact will be anything but small.