Who are the people behind Ichor Therapeutics? How did you meet and decide that this was the thing to do? Why macular degeneration as a target?
People have always been the focus of Ichor. Since day one we have worked to create a positive environment that cultivates a product-oriented research focus and emphasizes autonomy and personal accountability for work. As a result, ambitious self-starters tend to find their way to Ichor and remain here. However, we recognized early on that just filling a lab with a bunch of blue-eyed bushy tailed young up-and-comers is not sufficient to develop a robust, mature, translational pipeline. We have augmented our team with a number of critical staff members who are seasoned pharma operators, including our Quality Assurance Director and General Counsel.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) was chosen as a target because we believe it is the closest SENS therapy to the clinic. While we obviously have an interest in providing cures for the patients suffering from AMD and are attracted to the large market opportunities such a treatment could bring, our broader interest is in validating the entire SENS paradigm. We believe that Aubrey de Grey continues to receive excessive criticism because nothing spun out of SENS has ever made it into a legitimate pre-clinical pipeline, much less to the bedside. However, this does not mean he is wrong. Our goal is to be the first group to bring a SENS inspired therapy into the clinic and in doing so, silence critics and generate new energy and capital for this cause.
I understand there’s a lengthy origin story for the approach you are taking to treat AMD; it’d be great to hear some of it.
Our approach to treating AMD is based on the hypothesis that cellular junk that accumulates over the lifespan significantly contributes to the onset and progression of AMD. Our goal is to periodically reduce the burden of the junk so it never accumulates to levels sufficient to induce pathology. The strategy to accomplish this calls for the identification of enzymes that can break down the junk in a physiological setting, and the engineering of these enzymes such that they can break down the target in the correct organelle of the correct cell without appreciable collateral damage to healthy cells or tissue.
Methuselah Foundation and SENS Research Foundation did excellent work in establishing this program nearly a decade ago. They successfully identified a number of candidate enzymes that could break down the molecular junk, but reported that the targeting systems evaluated failed to deliver these enzymes to the appropriate organelles and cells. My group reevaluated these findings, and discovered that these findings were flawed. The delivery failure could be entirely attributed to a subtle, yet highly significant difference between how the target cells behave outside of the body as compared to inside the body. It turned out that the approach was in fact valid, it was the cell based assay that had been used that was flawed. This discovery was striking enough that SENS Research Foundation provided Ichor with funding and a material and technology transfer agreement to reassess the technology, and over $700,000 in directed program investments and grants have been received in the last year or two.
You recently completed a round of funding for the AMD work; what is the plan for the next year or so?
The new funds will allow us to develop a portfolio of enzyme therapy candidates to treat AMD. We will obtain critical data necessary to secure follow-on investment including in vitro studies (cell culture studies to confirm mechanism of action and cytotoxicity) and pivotal proof-of-concept in vivo studies, such as toxicity, PK/PD (how long the enzyme stays in the body and where), and efficacy. We will also be restructuring the company (reincorporating an IP holding company in Delaware, ensuring all contracts are up to date and audited) and ensuring our IP position is on solid footing (licensing in several related patents from existing collaborators, and filing several provisional patents from our intramural work). Collectively, we believe these efforts will position us to obtain series A for investigational new drug (IND) enabling pre-clinical studies.
You’ve been involved in the rejuvenation research community for quite some time now. What is your take on the bigger picture of SENS and the goal of ending aging?
This is a loaded question. What I can say is that the medical establishment has made great progress in the treatment of infectious disease through the development of antibiotics, vaccines, and hygiene programs. However, similar progress has not been realized for the diseases of old age, despite exorbitant expenditures. I have chosen to work in this space because I think a different approach is necessary, and it is here that I believe my companies and I can be the most impactful. I think SENS provides a good framework within which to ask and answer questions.
What do you see as the best approach to getting nascent SENS technologies like this one out of the laboratory and into the clinic?
We need more people who fully understand, in a highly detailed way, what a real translational path looks like. To take on projects like this, being a good scientist is not enough. We need people who can speak business, science, medicine, and legal, and apply these diverse disciplines to a well articulated, focused product or problem. There is no shortage of people who partially understand some of these, but the details are not somewhat important – they are all that matter for success in this space.
Another area is for investors. Some of the projects that come across my desk for review are truly abysmal, yet I have seen projects that are clearly elaborate hoaxes or outright scams (to anyone who has stepped foot in a laboratory) get funded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. While it is perfectly reasonable for high net worth individuals to gamble on moon shots in the anti-aging space (and I am ever grateful for the investors who have taken such a gamble on us) even aggressive development strategies should have some basis in reality. This is especially true as more and more high tech and internet investors move into the space.
If this works stupendously well, what comes next for Ichor Therapeutics?
I really want to get back into stem-cell research, but I basically need a blank check and a strong knowledge of the regulatory path to clinic before I feel comfortable moving into the space. A successful AMD exit would accomplish both of these goals, and position us to pivot to cell-based therapies.