When Leslie Williams, a former pharmaceutical executive, agreed to meet a visiting professor from Australia in Boston for a lecture, she thought it would be a routine lunch in her role as a business mentor.
But the meeting, three years ago at the Boston Cambridge Marriott, turned into an intense five-hour discussion as Dr. Robert Anderson explained how his research into celiac disease promised to render the destructive disorder obsolete.
An autoimmune disease triggered by gluten proteins in wheat, barley, and rye, celiac disease affects some 3 million Americans. Untreated, it can destroy digestive tract tissue and can lead to anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, neurological dysfunction, or even cancer.
Currently, the only solution is to avoid gluten altogether. That means not eating standard versions of bread, pasta, and pizza, or anything else that contains even traces of wheat, including soy sauce and some candy, such as Twizzlers.
The science “struck me as quite special and possibly game-changing,” Williams recalled.
She agreed to work with Anderson, and in short order Williams lined up seed capital from an angel investor and then went to Australia to unravel legal agreements around Anderson’s research and his company. Within the year, ImmusanT was formed, with Williams as chief executive and Anderson as chief scientific officer. By its first anniversary, the firm had $20 million in venture funding.
ImmusanT is headquartered in the biotech boomtown of Kendall Square in Cambridge and is conducting clinical trials for its vaccine, NexVax2, under “fast-track” designation from the Food and Drug Administration for diseases for which no comparable therapies exist.
“If it works, you’ll see the entire paradigm of treatment for celiac changed,” said Sundar Kodiyalam, managing director for the venture investor Vatera Healthcare and an ImmusanT board member. His firm was so enamored of the science that it invested before the company had persuasive clinical data.
Beyond ImmusanT, Boston has become a locus for research into celiac disease. Massachusetts General Hospital scored a coup when it recently convinced a leading researcher, Dr. Alessio Fasano, to head its new celiac treatment and research center. “Our mission is to make life normal for people with celiac disease,” Fasano said at a ceremony marking the opening of the Mass. General center in February.
With similar research units at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Children’s Hospital Boston, the city now has “a critical mass of expertise” in celiac disease, said Dr. Ronald Kleinman, physician in chief of Mass. General’s pediatric unit.
“I’m not sure that I see miracles happening” with the research underway now, said Lee Graham, chairwoman of Healthy Villi, a 900-member support group for celiac sufferers in New England. “But the gathering that’s happening in Boston is terrific, and tremendously encouraging to us.”
Formerly at the University of Maryland, Fasano in 2003 published a landmark analysis in which he determined that celiac disease affects many more people than previously thought: about 1 out of 100 people. Up to that point, the scientific wisdom was that celiac was relatively rare, and that a gluten-free diet worked as a sufficient “cure.”
But Fasano and others have since shown that some patients who avoid gluten continue to suffer gastric distress, leading to the conclusion that diet alone is not enough.
Not surprisingly, with the market for gluten-free foods at $4.2 billion, ImmunsanT has some company in the race for a solution.
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