Denis Wirtz, Ph.D., vice provost for research at The Johns Hopkins University, acknowledges there was a personal reason he co-founded a company that aims to stop the spread of cancer in the body.
“It’s envy of my siblings,” he says with a laugh. “They all are incredibly successful business people.”
But starting AbMeta Therapeutics also was a way for Wirtz to serve as a real-life example of the high value that The Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine place on entrepreneurship.
“Now I can honestly say, ‘If I can do it, everyone can do it,’” says Wirtz, the Theophilus Halley Smoot Professor of Engineering Science at the Whiting School of Engineering. “Instead of being an advocate for greater entrepreneurship, now I can say even to colleagues with seniority that they should, as a way of measuring their impact, develop tech that is used in the real world and not just rely on journal articles to reach peers about their work.”
Wirtz formed AbMeta last fall with Jamie Spangler, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering and Elizabeth Jaffee, M.D., deputy director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.
“This opportunity just presented itself in such an exciting way that we couldn’t pass it up,” says Spangler. “It’s all about impact. How can I have the most impact in the shortest amount of time given the resources and training? I really see that as being at that interface between academic science and translational medicine.”
Spangler’s and Wirtz’s labs together, and Jaffee independently, were investigating metastasis, the spread of cancer from a primary site in the body, which is responsible for 90% of all cancer-related deaths. Wirtz’s interest began in 2016 when a researcher in his lab observed that cancer cells moved much faster when they were close together than when they were spread out. The lab determined the movement was caused by two molecules secreted by cancer cells and wanted to figure out a way to stop the cells from migrating.
“If cancer fatality was only a story of tumor growth, it wouldn’t be the disease we talk about and fear so much every day. It would be confined to a certain space, and a surgeon could remove it and you’d go on,” says Wirtz, who has joint appointments in the departments of oncology and pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“Patients with cancer don’t die from the primary tumors,” says Jaffee, whose research focuses on immune-based therapies for cancer. “They die from metastasis.”
Wirtz’s laboratory contacted Spangler, whose lab specializes in engineering antibodies — proteins in the blood that specifically target other molecules. The antibody Spangler’s lab developed to block the pathway associated with cell movement significantly reduced metastasis in a study on mouse tumors, Spangler says.
“Most projects in science are just one challenge after another,” says Spangler. “It’s unusual, but exciting, that with this project, everything has kept working.”
Jaffee, meanwhile, has been testing immunotherapies for almost 25 years on patients at high risk of metastasis, starting with a vaccine targeting pancreatic cancer. The overall five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 9%, and for metastasized pancreatic cancer it is 3%, she says. Those who lived longer, she discovered, had an antibody that blocked the cancer’s movement, but not everyone produced the antibody.
Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV) introduced Jaffee, Spangler and Wirtz to Joseph Carroll, Ph.D., director of life sciences for the IP Group, a hard science investment firm that discovers and builds early stage companies. Carroll was intrigued by the researchers’ innovations, as well as by having a clinician (Jaffee), bioengineer (Spangler) and biologist (Wirtz) as founders — three roles necessary in building a biotech company. Carroll created a plan and a funding model to build a startup around the trio.
“Denis Wirtz is a provost at Hopkins, Liz Jaffee is a cancer center director and Jamie Spangler is a superstar new faculty member,” says Carroll. “That’s an interesting triad that coalesced around a groundbreaking science, and we wanted to support this group and get their tech to market.”
The Bisciotti Foundation Translational Fund awarded a grant for Spangler and Wirtz’s research through JHTV in 2020 and, combined with IP Group investment, the startup has already secured nearly $2 million in funding. The company initially plans to target pancreatic and triple-negative breast cancer, two of the more aggressive forms of the disease, and aims to test its therapy in patients in the next five years.
“It’s become pretty evident that the best way to move innovations you have in your lab into the clinic is through these startup companies,” says Jaffee. “There are opportunities for early funding that you just can’t get from the [National Institutes of Health], you can’t get from foundations.”