“We’ve been talking about viruses every day for the last 20 years, and now everyone is,” CEO Ben Doranz said. Here’s what that work looks like.
When biotech company Integral Molecular set up shop in University City two decades ago, the team already had viruses on the brain.
CEO Ben Doranz had been researching the HIV virus in the late 1990s at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 2001, cofounded the company at the University City Science Center incubator with some of his colleagues. Integral Molecular has since expanded to multiple spaces within the Science Center, focusing on research and development of therapeutic antibodies.
“Our core business is research, not clinical,” Doranz said. “We’re not developing vaccines, or drugs, but we will develop the tech behind drugs and vaccines.”
And as most of the scientific community (and the world) turns its eyes on the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Integral Molecular has, too.
Doranz said in the company’s history, it’s produced research on other viruses such as SARS, Chikungunya, MERS and Ebola. Because scientists in China identified and shared the COVID-19 sequence back in January, the company and others around the world have been able to begin research into drugs that could help treat patients and a possible vaccine to stop the spread.
Like with any virus, Doranz said, Integral researchers are trying to get to the bottom of these two questions: How and what makes a good immune response? And why is this virus so infectious, so pathogenic?
It’s where two of the company’s key technologies will come in.
Researchers are using something called shotgun mutagenesis epitope mapping to determine where virus antibodies bind on the spike protein of the virus. The epitope mapping can help determine what vaccine works best and how it works and enables the selection of the best therapeutic drugs.
The company’s membrane proteome array will potentially determine what receptors the virus uses to enter and infect cells. Understanding this receptor can help explain why the virus spreads so easily and how it causes disease, Doranz said.
Right now, he said, every relevant biotech company is doing whatever it can to take immediate action.
“The longer game is selling it, and the short term is finding drugs that can stop the virus, aside from just taking precautions,” Doranz said. “Integral Molecular not working on drugs per say, but we’re collaborating in our research with those who can.”
The company’s work is often funded by organizations such as the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institute of Health.
While this coronavirus is different from others the science community has seen, past outbreaks can inform a course of action for drug treatments and creating a vaccine. And folks are working at record speed, Doranz said.
He’s talking in particular about biotech company Moderna, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which began phase one of a clinical trial for a potential vaccine for the virus this week. The company is working with researchers from the NIH, and the trial is being conducted at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle.
Researchers have been preparing for years to be in a situation like this, Doranz said. And treating different viruses can be like driving a car: Each car basically functions the same, but different models have their own unique features.
“It’s definitely an interesting time,” Doranz said. “We’ve been talking about viruses every day for the last 20 years, and now everyone is.”