Bill Hearl won’t forget the day in 2009 when his company’s bank account had less than $10.
It made the day, six years later, that much sweeter when his Rockville-based Immunomic Therapeutics Inc. closed a $300 million deal with Japan-based Astellas Pharma Inc. to develop an allergy vaccine.
“One of the happiest days I think I ever had was when CFO Eric Winzer came down and saide, ‘Hey, look at the Bank of America statement online.'” Hearl said. “I go in there and there’s $300 million and change in there.”
That sudden infusion of cash last October was an inflection point for the 20-person company. It’s allowed the company to entrench itself today, nearly a year later, in one of the fastest-growing areas of pharmaceutical research that had been its original mission all along: cancer immunotherapy.
Using the sae DNA vaccine platform, called LAMP-Vax, that was responsible for its success in the allergy space, Immunomic now aims to help transform a market expected to reach $60 billion by 2020.
“I really believe we can get a deal better than the allergy deal in immuno-oncology,” Hearl said.
It’s still early in the investigational process – Immunomic doesn’t have an official drug in the clinical pipeline yet. But the company has begun collaborating with the University of Florida on using LAMP-Vax, which stands for Lysosomal Associated Membrane Protein, to attack glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. The technology takes a protein sequence from the source of a disease or allergy, inserts it into the LAMP gene in the immune cells to boost a patient’s immune response.
It was Immunomic’s original direction when Hearl, an entrepreneur with a doctorate in biochemistry, started the company in 2006 with Dr. Tom August, who specializes in pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins University. The two won exclusive rights for the technology from Johns Hopkins and quickly licensed it out to a company known as Geron Corp. for a blast of early seed funding.
But when the company needed a product to show potential investors fast, Hearl and August opted for something easier to move through the regulatory process, with fewer risks.
That’s when the team discovered an especially problematic trigger for allergies in Japan, the Japanese red cedar. It releases pollen far earlier in the season than any other plant there, making it a perfect target.
while the clinical trial was only meant to test for safety, the company found it showed the potential for the vaccine to work on the allergy patients tested. So, the company sent packets of information to 21 of the top Japanese pharmaceutical companies in the allergy and respiratory space. Six companies ultimately entered due diligence, Hearl said.
In January 2015, Astellas agreed an exclusive license for the Japanese red cedar allergy vaccine for $70 million. By that fall, the company returned to acquire the rest of Immunomic’s allergy program in an exclusive license for $300 million. That included an investigational vaccine the local company had developed for treating patients suffering from allergies to peanuts.
Now, without the bulk of its allergy program, Immunomic is pivoting back to immuno-oncology, which Hearl still believes provides the technology ‘s highest value, especially given how much the field has expanded in the past decade.
“There is so much enthusiasm around immunotherapy because it’s showing a higher response rate than traditional chemotherapy treatments,” Hearl said.