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Md.’s small biohealth businesses ready for growth

William G. Hearl, Ph.D., CEO of Immunomic Therapeutics, Inc., stands in front of an image of Japanese Red Cedar pollen made through a microscope. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

William G. Hearl, Ph.D., CEO of Immunomic Therapeutics, Inc., stands in front of an image of Japanese Red Cedar pollen made through a microscope. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

As Maryland emerges as a hotbed for research and commercial opportunities in the biohealth industry, many small businesses in this sector see the state as a good place to grow.

When William Hearl started building Rockville-based Immunomic Therapeutics Inc. a decade ago, much of the initial learning curve was finding that sweet spot between creating their products and presenting it in a way that would attract investment. After a learning period, Immunomic adapted its technology and signed a $300 million licensing deal last year.

Immunomic makes a DNA vaccine that induces an immune response and was developed through research at Johns Hopkins University. The vaccine is injected into the DNA of a protein, allowing the body’s immune system to respond to the ailment.

“It’s a very elegant way to teach the immune system how to respond to any given target,” Hearl said.

Initially, the technology was developed commercially for HIV treatment by Dr. Tom August at Johns Hopkins and yielded promising animal data to be used as an HIV therapeutic, but it didn’t get a lot of traction in the market. In 2010, the company saw an opportunity to use its technology for allergy treatment, which attracted funding from Life Sciences Greenhouse in central Pennsylvania. Immunomic maintained offices in Hershey for five years and recently consolidated its efforts in Rockville.

The company also did a clinical study in Japan to see if the gene therapy could treat a pollen allergy from red cedar trees there. Last year, Immunomic signed a $300 million licensing deal with Japanese pharmaceutical giant Astellas Pharma to develop that vaccine. The company’s eventual goal is to develop a vaccine for peanut allergies.

Immunomic also is looking to use its technology to research oncology treatments. It already has relationships with researchers in the U.S. and is working with a doctor at the University of Florida on a clinical study for glioblastoma.

Taking a concept from a university on a tech transfer basis to a commercial realm involves different priorities and regulatory frameworks.

“Once you’re in a commercial environment your endpoint is quite different,” Hearl said. “Certain elements of the science have to be redone in a way that…is going to acceptable to the FDA in regulatory filings.”

For example, in Immunomic’s case, the technology licensed by Johns Hopkins was not FDA viable, a problem the company quickly addressed, Hearl said.

Oncology and immuno-oncology are both popular fields in the commercial biohealth space, along with health technology such as wearables and their corresponding apps and software. Patient data tracking and protection also are popular commercial fields, said Richard Bendis, president and CEO of Maryland BioHealth Innovation in Rockville.

As medical students at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Robert Lord and Nick Culbertson, cofounders of Baltimore-based Protenus, saw a need for data protection in health care. They found that the industry has spent billions of dollars rolling out electronic health records, but had not invested in securing that information.

“If you have access to e-health records, you have complete access to it,” Lord said. “It can be used as a potentially malicious search engine.”

While in the DreamIt Health Baltimore accelerator’s class of 2014, Lord and Culbertson developed the prototype that would become Protenus. Johns Hopkins Hospital is now a client, along with health care providers across the country, Lord said.

“I think about Protenus’s platform being the standard for hospitals. I don’t think there is a place that has protected health information that shouldn’t have Protenus,” Lord said.

Both Protenus and Immunomic are examples Maryland businesses that have ties to local research institutions and are expanding outside the state.

“When you’re in constant interaction with people from NIH, Johns Hopkins, you get an opportunity to exchange ideas,” said Hearl, a Maryland native. “The proximity to the FDA is helpful. There’s something comforting to having ready access to them if you need it.”

Lord agreed: “We find it really helpful to be near D.C. because we’re in a space that’s very highly regulated. There’s a lot of terrific opportunities for Baltimore companies in the D.C. area as well,” he said. He recently briefed the U.S. Senate on electronic health records

There’s also room for partnership opportunities between large companies getting into biohealth, and small businesses. For example, Baltimore sports apparel giant Under Armour has delved into personal fitness and monitoring people’s health, creating a convergence between apparel and healthcare and is harboring health data from its 175 million-plus users.

Overall, more than 275,000 people in Maryland work in the biohealth industry, according to the latest Central Maryland BioHealth Innovation Index, a report by the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, Maryland BioHealth Innovation and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

“A lot of the small and large companies that have the capabilities are located here in Maryland and just need to be connected,” Bendis said.

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