Imagine the possibility of not just curing one variation of a type of cancer, but all variations. Game changer, right?
That’s exactly what 2016 Winner PathoVax is determined to accomplish. Their HPV vaccine, RGVax, targets all 15 types of HPV that cause cervical cancer and other cancers, where current vaccines on the market only target a few types.
One of the biggest challenges they face is the negative social stigma attached to HPV, but through continued education in both the medical and consumer sectors, they are working to reduce this stigma and shed light on the importance of a comprehensive vaccine.
Read on to learn more about the work Weijie and Josh are doing to commercialize RGVax, and how they’re building connections in Buffalo’s reputable medical community to further research and move full steam ahead towards clinical trials.
How did your startup…well, startup?
Weijie: We (Josh and I) were fellow PhD candidates at Johns Hopkins University.
Josh *interrupts*: Weijie stood in front of our entire PhD class on Day 1 and proclaimed that he wanted to cure cancer.
Weijie: We both had interests in moving translational research beyond bench discoveries, so we attended the same biotech commercialization courses. In one of these sessions, Josh proposed developing a business case based on a new HPV vaccine innovation that he had been working on. Six weeks later, we made a viable business plan that convinced Josh’s professor (inventor of the vaccine) to support our efforts in spinning off a biotech startup around this breakthrough.
What do you do? Your startup?
Weijie: PathoVax is advancing a best-in-class HPV vaccine that will be the first to prevent infections of all 15 HPVs that cause cervical cancers and others in both genders. We have assembled domain expertise in HPV vaccine research and commercialization to bring this patented breakthrough into the pivotal human clinical trials. Compared to most startups, PathoVax has the distinct advantage of having received validation from the National Cancer Institute in the form of a non-dilutive grant that funds production of the clinical-grade vaccine and preclinical studies to obtain approval to begin trials in 2019.
Josh: We are also working beyond HPV, looking into the properties of our vaccine particle platform and other potential uses for it.
What is the best part / worst part of your day as a founder?
Weijie: Best part: knowing the success of our RGVax vaccine program means future generations not having to worry about HPV cancers, which is unthinkable today given that currently 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. are infected with this virus despite having existing HPV vaccines for over ten years. Hence, making a cancer-causing virus a footnote in history, similar to smallpox and measles, will have an important impact for public health.
Josh: Agree with Weijie that knowing we are doing something to make a difference in people’s lives eventually is the best part of the job. Worst part: learning that some things/issues cannot be solved immediately or are just simply out of our control.
When was the ‘aha’ moment for your startup when you realized this could be a thing?
Weijie: When Dr. Roden (co-inventor of the RGVax vaccine) said to us that he will fully support our commercialization efforts on a discovery that he had dedicated a considerable amount of his research career on. His support was instrumental in getting the company off the ground.
Josh: The success, validation, and feedback in our earlier business plan competition days.
What tools can you not live without and why?
Weijie: PubMed. We are scientific nerds! We are constantly on the lookout for data to support our total HPV-cancer preventive vaccine and innovative vaccine technologies that we can further develop beyond our lead asset.
Josh: Whatsapp. I use it to communicate with Weijie. I stay connected to my friends in Singapore and U.K. also.
What was important advice you received when starting up and who told it to you?
Weijie: One of our early advisors told us: “You don’t know what you don’t know;” never to assume that we know everything and never stop asking questions. This was incredibly helpful to us in our external interactions, which allowed us to obtain valuable insights and connections.
Josh: Learn to live like a paranoid optimist: Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
What are your goals for the next year? Three years?
Weijie: Prepare for our Phase 1 in human studies. Beyond that, we are also working closely with investigators at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the University of Buffalo, and hope to announce new vaccine pipeline projects within the next year. Since our HPV virus-like particle technology has already been proven to be safe in humans, there are multiple promising applications, especially in the area of cancer treatment. Dr. Norma Nowak is a huge advocate and has selflessly connected us with other key leaders in Buffalo.
In three years, our HPV vaccine will enter the pivotal human clinical studies. Once we have accomplished the milestone in proving safety, we anticipate exciting exit opportunities to work with strategic partners.
Josh: Evolve PathoVax from a HPV vaccine company to a HPV vaccine platform company.
Weijie: Not many people know this, but we were alternate finalists in 2015, so we have had more time to get to know the Buffalo ecosystem. Having interacted with startup communities across multiple cities in the U.S., we were drawn to the level of enthusiasm and support for 43North companies. The great biomedical system also offers opportunities for an early-stage biotech company like us, and we have not been shy to share this perspective with our networks.
Josh: There is a sense of passion and camaraderie in wanting to make the city great again. During our year as an alternate, we also learned from previous winners how the 43North program seeks to ensure their winners’ success. These were important elements for me.
How do you do it? What drives you?
Weijie: The concept of preventing HPV infection is synonymous with cancer prevention, which remains that goal of almost every cancer biology researcher. Beyond just scientific publications, we started PathoVax because we want to bring our HPV vaccine into the clinic, such that no one would ever have to die from a cancer that can be prevented. HPV disease is an epidemic worldwide, so we have the opportunity to directly impact global health. We know that this is a privilege, so that’s what drives our work every single day.
Josh: Our company slogan says it all, “Blazing the trail to COMPLETE protection.”