Turning the dial to a new destination

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Turning the dial to a new destination

March 22nd, 2018
by Laurence Turka, MD
Chief Scientific Officer

I have spent the past 33 years as a clinician and academic researcher helping patients with various immune-related conditions, including autoimmune diseases, type 1 diabetes, allergy and organ transplant rejection.  At every step in my clinical work, it has been truly rewarding to be working directly with patients, helping them and learning from them. Today I have moved to another vantage point for helping patients: as the chief scientific officer of a new biotech company, Rheos Medicines.

Why did I make this move from bedside to biotech? More importantly, how will this move enable me to have an impact on patients with immune-mediated diseases?

It was clear from the outset of my life as a physician, that in many instances, my ability to help patients was handicapped by the lack of treatments for diseases involving the immune system. As my career progressed, I came to believe that the way to make the strongest impact for patients – from a long-term perspective – might be for me to contribute my expertise in a biotech company. This would enable me to translate science and clinical knowledge into novel treatment approaches in a different, more rapid, and more powerful way.

The current collection of drugs to treat diseases involving the immune system is clearly improved from when I first started seeing patients, but it has a long way to go.  Immune-mediated disease are many and varied: lupus, psoriasis, vitiligo, scleroderma, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and organ transplant rejection. Collectively, they afflict millions of patients and their combined prevalence is measured as greater than 10% of the populations in Western societies. I had a front row seat as a clinician to see that the patient needs in these disease areas are still unmet.

These needs and opportunities led me to my role as a founder and executive leader at Rheos Medicines. Rheos launched today based on compelling science and a new approach to treat immune-mediated diseases based on immune cell metabolism – or immunometabolism, as the field is now called.

Here’s what we are doing for the first time at Rheos.

Rheos is developing a first-of-a-kind technology platform that provides a comprehensive picture of what’s going on in different types of immune cells. While profiling gene transcription has been around for a long time, the Rheos breakthrough is the ability to combine this with detailed investigation of metabolomics to understand the metabolism of immune cells with unprecedented scale and precision.  The Immune Cell Encyclopedia (ICE) at Rheos will enable us to compare different types of immune cells and identify pathways and targets that are specific to the cells causing disease.  Importantly, Rheos is simultaneously including patient samples and identifying biomarkers in our encyclopedia – so that we can, for the first time, bring precision medicines to treatment of immune-mediated diseases.

I pursued the path to Rheos gradually. 

Over the past two years, while still running my laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital, I also worked part time as a consultant to Third Rock Ventures, the venture capital firm that was working to establish Rheos as a new start-up company.  While the approach that Rheos was taking was different from what I did in my academic lab, the goal was the same:  to understand the immune cell pathways that lead to disease and developing medicines for that purpose.

This is something that has long driven me.  During my research career, I was part of a collaborative effort that led to the development and approval of a drug to prevent rejection in kidney transplant recipients.  I have always felt that this was one of the most gratifying parts of my professional life.  It is an experience that has stayed with me and attracted me to the path of drug discovery in a biotech.

For the past 15 years I have served as the Deputy Director of the Immune Tolerance Network, an international NIH-funded consortium to perform early phase clinical trials of immune tolerance in autoimmunity, allergy, and transplantation.  This role gave me the chance to see very directly how basic research translates into new drugs for patients. It also expanded my work into autoimmune diseases such as type I diabetes and multiple sclerosis, giving me a broader view of these immune cell mechanisms that cause autoimmunity and their similarity to those that lead to transplant rejection.  This is an experience that gave me an appreciation that there are central mechanisms of immune cell modulation that can have broad impact for many diseases.

Even reflecting on my very early career, there are connections to my focus on discovering new medicines today.

Looking back at my first job after medical school and residency, it was a fellowship specialty training in kidney disease where I had the privilege of caring for patients who had received kidney transplants.  The major problem they faced was their immune system rejecting the transplant, and unfortunately, the vast majority of patients would ultimately reject their kidneys.  Moreover, for many patients, the side effects of the early generation of “immunosuppressive” drugs they took were cumulative and could themselves by life-threatening.

The drugs which had been developed during my career are now able to prevent rejection, at least for a time, in most organ transplant patients.  These new medicines to prevent rejection have dramatically changed treatment outcomes for patients.  The landscape is so different from my days of fellowship training with kidney transplant patients in the 1980s.  And yet, anti-rejection drugs are just the tip of the iceberg for how we can therapeutically harness the immune system to help patients.

Now, in my new role as CSO of Rheos, I can see the chance to break open a new field and develop medicines to treat patients with immune-mediated diseases is a journey too good by pass up.

 

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