In search of a cure: Biotech firm on the cutting edge of science

Jaynine Ward, a research scientist with Inimmune, works in a company lab at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

In a collection of small laboratories filled with glass beakers, liquid compounds and deep freezers, scientists with an upstart Missoula biotech firm are looking to cure allergies, infectious diseases and cancer.

With a strong portfolio of drug candidates and a seasoned team of chemists, the scientists with Inimmune like their chances of getting a new drug to clinical trial within the next five years.

“Ideally, in 10 years we’ll have one or more products possibly in Phase 3 clinical trials,” said Jay Evans, president and CEO of Inimmune. “In an ideal world, we’ll be on the doorstep of launching a potential cure for either food or seasonal allergies that could be life changing to lots of people.”

Inimmune, which conducts research at both the Montana Technology Enterprise Center and the University of Montana campus, has emerged as one of several promising new biotech firms based in Missoula, each looking to make global impact.

Just two years ago, the team of senior researchers were operating in Hamilton under the banner of GSK Vaccines (formerly owned by Corixa and Ribi ImmunoChem). That came to an end when GSK consolidated its R&D operations into three global facilities. It gave many of its Hamilton employees an opportunity to transfer to Rockville, Maryland, or strike out on their own.

The employees chose the later.

“We have team members who had been there for over 20 years,” said Evans. “The last thing we wanted to do was uproot their families and move them to Maryland. We began exploring options with GSK and devised a plan where we could start a company here in Missoula with the assistance of GSK.”

Evans, whose career has covered everything from HIV immunology to stem cell transplantation, said GSK remains one of his firm’s biggest partners and clients. In the costly world of pharmaceuticals, the relationship has been crucial to Inimmune’s early success, as is the company’s partnership with the University of Montana.

Several years ago, UM President Royce Engstrom announced a renewed focus on research, one that evolved last year to net a record $87 million in external research funding. That effort could get an added boost as Inimmune begins its own efforts to commercialize technologies from a newly formed campus Center for Transitional Medicine.

The center looks to assist other researchers who want to move their research into clinical trials and eventual commercialization. The center is currently under development, and when it opens, its impact on the state’s economy is expected to substantial.

“I think in today’s world, our public and our public-policy makers have the expectation that our universities contribute a little bit more directly to the economic status of our state and our country,” Engstrom said. “We’ve had so many good success stories in the last few years of people and ideas moving from the university to the private sector. I think it’s contributing in a very substantive way to the vibe in Missoula in terms of business development, high-tech and so on.”

Visitors to the Montana Technology Enterprise Center could easily pass the nondescript lab space occupied by Inimmune without knowing the work taking pace behind the doors.

There, in a series of rooms, chemists and molecular biologists clad in white robes – surrounded by the trappings of science – are searching for cures to allergies, skin diseases and cancers.

As Evans puts it, the company develops immunotherapies, or “small molecules that stimulate the immune system” in different ways. A successful outcome could effect common allergies, from food to pollen, or boost the body’s natural defenses in fighting disease.

Jay Evans, left, president and CEO of Inimmune, talks with Lois Walsh, a senior scientist, in one of the company’s labs. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

“The same thing with autoimmunity,” Evans said. “A lot of autoimmune diseases are immune-driven by different parts of the immune system. If you can desensitize against an allergen, you should also be able to desensitize or change the direction of an autoimmune disease for either treatment or prevention.”

While Inimmune made the move to Missoula with 15 employees, it now has 16 members on staff, most of them bearing the title as a senior researcher. Their pursuit of science crosses the spectrum, from initial compound discovery to synthetic chemistry.

It also includes the animal studies needed for regulatory approval during early drug trials. That’s where Inimmune’s current relationship with the University of Montana comes in, Evans said.

“For a small company like ours, to build our own facility would be cost prohibitive,” he said. “By partnering with the university, we’re able to do that here, keep those jobs here and do it for reasonable cost.”

Such costs can easily become prohibitive for an upstart drug company. Getting a compound to trail takes years of work and the odds of success are low. But with Inimmune’s pool of talent, its pipeline of drug candidates and partnerhips, the team believes it will get a drug to Phase 1 trial within the next few years.

That first phase consists of a safety study, where the drug, chemical or vaccine is tested in patients in a dose-responsive manner. Evans said the dose is stepped up over time until the patient responds to the therapy without showing signs of toxic reaction.

“When you step into Phase 2, you take your best tolerated dose from Phase 1 and move to a study that allows you to look for efficacy,” Evans said. “You can fine-tune the dosing, work on combinations with other therapies, schedule the dosing and do things to redefine what it looks like in people.”

Phase 3 represents the big study across a number of patients. It may also be the most costly phase, and it’s too early to say if Inimmune with attempt to conduct Phase 3 trials on its own or partner with another pharmaceutical company.

Yet while studies in cancer patients can take years to complete, Evans said, similar studies with allergens can be accomplished in a single season. And it’s a cure for allergies where Inimmune expects see its first breakthrough.

“The percentage of drugs that make it from Phase 1 to Phase 3 is extremely low, and it’s very costly,” Evans said. “But that’ part of doing business. That’s why having a company with a deep portfolio of drug candidates and a team that’s been doing this together for 15 or 20 years is so important. If one thing doesn’t work, we know how to work with our synthetic chemists on why it failed and fix it.”

Regardless of what direction Inimmune takes, Evans said it plans to stay in Missoula, where growing jobs both locally and across the state remains part of the company’s focus.

“The potential is huge,” Evans said. “When you talk about markets like allergy and autoimmunity, really the the sky’s the limit. Hopefully ours will be a model for university professors and others to start a biotech here in Montana. It’s a great place to live and do that kind of work.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com