Bright Idea: Patient, Heal Thyself
Immusoft aims to program a person’s own cells to cure disease.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
If the body is driven more by information than by chemistry, why not treat disease with information?
This question led Matthew Scholz to biology, and, ultimately, to Immusoft Corporation, a Seattle company he founded in 2009. Immusoft technology programs B cells, part of the body’s immune system, to treat disease. Certain subsets of these cells are specialized to crank out antibodies, and they can be incredibly long-lived. Long-lived plasma cells formed after a smallpox vaccination, for example, can live in the body more than 50 years.
Biologics — that is, treatments produced inside living cells — work well, but they’re more expensive to manufacture than chemically based treatments because they require advanced production equipment and careful storage. B cells, meanwhile, have the production system for biologics built in. By tweaking the code that tells the cells what to produce, Immusoft can make them into tiny treatment factories that continue to operate inside the body. In March, Immusoft acquired Minneapolis-based Discovery Genomics, which has a process that makes it far easier and cheaper to program the cells.
Immusoft sees potential in modifying B cells to treat many conditions. The process, for example, might be used to produce the molecule that triggers muscles to repair and regenerate, thereby preventing muscle loss among the elderly. The company is focusing first on a rare genetic disorder called MPS I, in which the body fails to provide an enzyme that helps break down long sugar chains inside cells. Although the enzyme can be manufactured and injected, it degrades quickly. By programming B cells to produce it in the body continuously, Immusoft could reduce considerably the cost and increase dramatically the ease of treatment.
Scholz says these specialized B cells are unlikely to go rogue because they don’t multiply in the body and they aren’t destructive. In the case of MPS I, even if the cells produced a massive overdose of the enzyme, it shouldn’t harm the patient.