What is Immunology and how are we as a society beginning to rely upon it? Listen as Benjamin Chen, CEO of Immune Targeting Systems discusses the factors involved in combating viruses and how they differ from bacteria illness.
Alan: Welcome back I'm here today with Benjamin Chen he's the CEO of Immune Targeting Systems. Let’s start with your background, I understand that you have a PhD, so what exactly is the study of Immunology?
Benjamin: Immunology is in many ways it is a discipline involved in many different aspects of Biology. When you get a vaccine that involves immunology when people have cancer, some of the treatments that involve stimulating the immune system to fight cancer, when you have an infectious disease, such in many ways the reason you get better is because your immune system is helping to get rid of some of the infectious agents. So Immunology in many ways is a very broad discipline in many ways it’s part of your body’s systems to fight to infectious agents, cancers or anything that's not good for you. In some ways it’s a protective system.
Alan: I remember growing up and the cold and flu season would come, and they would say we can't find a cure for the common cold, is it true still today?
Benjamin: Yes, so there’s a difference between the common cold and the flu. So flu is caused by what we call a virus and the common code is caused by bacteria. The common cold usually can be treated right, chicken soup and get some rest and such. The flu is very different, it's good that you mentioned that because the company that I'm involved in is trying to tackle this particular problem and a later time we can talk about that.
Alan: Ok so its interesting- bacteria vs virus, a virus is easier to treat?
Benjamin: No virus is more difficult to treat, bacteria is easier to treat with antibiotics but all around you’re hearing these days a lot about the antibiotic resistant bacteria which is more sophisticated and more complicated.
Alan: Ben what gave you the inspiration to do your own company, was this your first company- Immune Targeting Systems or did you do other ventures prior to this?
Benjamin: I have been involved with five companies in my career. I caught the bug as they call it of being in the Bio-Tech industry when I was at Stanford. I saw many of the professors go off an start companies. The goal instead of just doing research and answering scientific questions and address some of the scientific curiosity- however this is what I discovered, how can I apply this in a real world situation and help people and improve human health. For example, you said ,‘can we treat flu?’ That’s an important question especially for the elderly population. So its that type of inspiration, I can be involved in scientific discovery in a very different setting, in a company setting where we can develop a treatment to help people.
Alan: When we’re dealing with the industry of immunology, it seems that there would need to be a lot of collaboration and sharing amongst the scientists of different pattern, is that true?
Benjamin: Oh absolutely. Especially true in immunology, as I pointed out, it’s a discipline as opposed to chemistry it is not as clear-cut physics, chemistry, when you mentioned that you know roughly what you did, with immunology is a multidisciplinary approach involves different disciplines, it involves computational biology, involves molecular biology, physiology and such so absolutely collaboration is critical.
Alan: I’m visiting here today with Benjamin Chen he's the CEO of Immune Targeting Systems, did I say that right?
Benjamin: Absolutely, we could call it ITS.
Alan: IGS you and they’re actually located out of London and we have to take a quick break here today and when we get back will get back more specifics set of how they go about tackling the flu vaccination and that other of the viruses today. We’ll be right back after these messages.
Alan: Welcome back. I’m here today with Benjamin Chen. He has a PhD in immunology and is currently serving as the CEO of Immune Targeting Systems. You are doing most of your work out of London I understand.
Benjamin: Yes, the company space is central in London.
Alan: Tell me was it from a strategic standpoint that London was chosen? Is it a little easier to get your science and research out in the market in another country? Why London?
Benjamin: We have this saying that a company can be started in any part of the world. We want to focus on the global market. There are a number of factors why we are located in London and often times the two major factors are where can you get money and where can you get talent? Of course Silicon Valley is the birthplace of technology. Often times companies are started here, but the competition is very stiff, both in terms of getting money and also getting the talent as such. There are entrepreneurs who have their homes in London, there is no reason for them to come to Silicon Valley. There is an opportunity for them to access the European capital for building their company and that’s what they have done.
Alan: I understand that a part of your research and mission statement is focusing on flu viruses. Once you target a certain flu virus, how do you go about distributing that into the mass markets for innovation?
Benjamin: That’s a very important question but before we go there, let me just tell you a little bit about what we do. What we do in addition to flu, we also have products in hepatitis and cancer, but let’s just focus on flu first. Why flu? Today when flu season comes and you are asked to get yourself vaccinated, what you may not know is that those who get vaccinated and are very healthy, only about 60% of you are protected. For the elderly population, the protection rate is much lower. In 2012, the protection rates of those affected was less than 10%. So what is going on here? The problem is that the virus that we produce to vaccinate needs to be changed every year because the virus mutates. By the time you get a method to manufacture the virus, it may have mutated or changed. So, it is not very good in protecting the immune system. This is long-winded way of saying that nevertheless, it is an important perspective on how big this opportunity is, whenever there is a situation of epidemic flu, swine flu, influenza- a very nasty flu virus came out and we are not prepared. So how we need to distribute it, we really need to work with a big pharmaceutical company. A small company is good at targeting system, good in the discovery and pushing the science forward. The big companies need to take you through the global regulatory approval, they need to use the distribution channel, they need to promote this particular product, so next time when this product comes out, you may see a commercial that go get vaccinated, this is a new product, it will give you 90% protection. The commercial aspect is through partnership.
Alan: I’m visiting here today with Benjamin Chen. He is the CEO of Immune Targeting Systems. His organization is based out of London and they do a lot of research on the flu viruses, cancer and Hepatitis B. Benjamin, I need to take a quick break. When we get back, I want to talk about the increasing difficulty with the strains of viruses as they mutate. We’ll be right back after these messages.
Alan: Welcome back. I’m here today with Benjamin Chen, he is the CEO of Immune Targeting Systems, based out of London. We’ve been talking about the aspects of company’s focus- cancer research, hepatitis B and the flu viruses. I want to back up and ask what brought you to this company. You were in Stanford doing research over there and did a couple of ventures but what did you see in this company?
Benjamin: That’s a great question. Part of it is that I'm a scientist by training but I'm always interested in cutting edge technology and want to be involved in ways to help move some of these cutting-edge technology to a potential to a commercial product. So there was a period of time I became an investment banker and was involved in their venture fund and the period of time was nine years. I had this habit of monitoring what's happening in different part of the world in promising companies. Immune Targeting systems was one company that caught my eye when they first got started. I thought that their value proposition of how to address problems was based on two things, one is based on the mistakes other people have made and second was capturing the new scientific development. When I saw them eight years ago, they were just ideas, not a whole lot there. I stayed in touch to see if they can generate some proof of concept. Three years ago, I met the CEO in San Francisco, where I am based. The conversation led to see if I can help them position the company in North America and China. I signed up to do that. They have some of the blue chip investors including the Novartis venture fund etc. For those of you in the industry would know that these are very well known investors. The investors want to take the company to the next level and I was brought in to make that happen. They appointed me the CEO and the Chairman of the company. The tem is a very small team, about twenty people, very typical of a start-up company, mostly involved in R & D. The goal is to use my network to broaden the reach of the company to help them form partnerships and link with the key opinion leaders in the universities to get the word out about the exciting things they are doing and form collaborations- with Stanford University, Cambridge, Imperial College and so forth.
Alan: Immunology- is it a small industry in the life sciences area?
Benjamin: Immunology has always been a very important therapeutic area in the biotech industry but it’s a very complex area. Because if you look at individuals, the immune system of different people is different, due to a variety of factors. So it is difficult to develop a drug that works for all. It’s also very difficult to find a way to stimulate the immune system of different individuals. However, there are some breakthroughs that have been happening in the last two years. In fact, some of the scientific journals and magazines have been highlighting the breakthrough in immunology, so the field is changing quite a bit at this moment. So, a lot of exciting things are happening.
Alan: It seems every flu/cold season, there comes stronger and stronger strains out there. People are becoming sicker and sicker. Is that my perception or is there some truth to the matter about this?
Benjamin: The issue here is that we think we are very smart but the pathogens are very smart is fighting for their survival as well. So, the flu this year may present itself very differently. That is one of the reasons why we perceive that the virus is getting nastier, if you will, and as result, the symptoms are stronger.
Alan: When cold and flu season comes, you see at the local drug store they are giving flu vaccinations. Is it a generic vaccination- does one vaccination work for all or do you find that some of these viruses are becoming stronger?
Benjamin: Great question. The flu vaccine seeks to elicit an antibody response in your body. Most of us who have been exposed to flu before, once we receive the vaccine, we will produce an antibody response. The question here is whether the antibody response is strong enough and whether you have the right response for that season’s flu. The vaccine is universal in the sense that anyone can use it but whether your body will respond to it properly is the key issue. That is why we talk about room for improvement.
Alan: Ben, how does a person find out more about your company- Immune Targeting Systems?
Benjamin: If you google us, you will find out about our company. We do participate in conferences and present our data and findings in journals and such.
Alan: Ben, I appreciate you being on today’s show. We need to take a quick break. We’ve been visiting here today with Ben Chen, he’s the CEO of Immune Targeting Systems. We’ll be right back after these messages.