May 24, 2019

A new way to treat autoimmune diseases

Autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmune liver disease, occur when the body’s immune system turns on itself. Currently, the only treatments involve suppressing the entire immune system, which leaves patients vulnerable to other infections or cancer. But a UCalgary spin-off company is now poised to tackle this challenge head on.

A potentially groundbreaking investigational treatment for autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease (CD) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is taking the next step toward commercialization thanks to a worldwide collaboration and licence agreement between Parvus Therapeutics and Genentech, a member of the Roche Group.

Parvus Therapeutics was founded by University of Calgary researcher Dr. Pere Santamaria, MD, PhD, Julia McFarlane/Diabetes Canada Professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). The investigational treatment, discovered by Dr. Santamaria, is called Navacims, a precision nanomedicine designed to trigger a naturally occurring regulatory mechanism within the immune system to protect against autoimmune disease.

More than 80 autoimmune diseases affect people around the world, including millions of Canadians. In these diseases, white blood cells, normally responsible for warding off foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses, sometimes mistakenly attack the body’s own "good" cells, causing their destruction. Each specific autoimmune disease results from an attack against thousands of individual protein fragments in the targeted organ, such as the insulin-producing pancreatic cells in the case of type 1 diabetes.

Dr. Santamaria explains how Navacims work

Nanoparticles reprogram disease-causing cells

Published in 2016, Santamaria’s study showed that nanoparticles (particles thousands of times smaller than a typical cell), decorated with protein targets acting as "bait" for disease-causing white blood cells, can be used to reprogram cells to suppress the disease they intended to cause. This new class of drugs exploits a naturally occurring process, previously unknown to science, that is wired into our immune system to protect us against autoimmune disease. 

Current drugs have no way of distinguishing rogue white blood cells from normal ones and as a result, drugs used to treat these diseases also suppress normal immunity leaving the individual susceptible to other illnesses.

“Imagine if you wanted to stop a war,” says Santamaria. “You would probably want to take out the entire army, which is what current drugs try to do.” He notes that this new class of drugs deals with this problem from a completely different perspective “Rather than taking soldiers out, our drugs trick a single soldier into becoming the ‘traitor’ that takes out the army general.” He adds, “Without the general, the army ceases to operate and the war ends.”

Potential for global benefit

“We’re thrilled that this potentially transformative and highly innovative approach, discovered through research at the University of Calgary, is advancing toward the clinic where it could possibly have the opportunity to broadly impact those who suffer from these serious diseases here in our community and around the world,” says Dr. Ed McCauley, president of the University of Calgary. “Across our campuses, our researchers are making important discoveries like this in the life sciences. Our priority is to ensure we take full advantage of every opportunity to develop our discoveries into tangible products to benefit society.”

When Parvus was founded in 2009, the company received crucial support from UCalgary’s technology transfer and business incubator, Innovate Calgary, to get them off the ground and maintain the company through the early stages of development.

Pre-clinical models demonstrate broad impact

Pre-clinical disease models with Navacims have demonstrated broad therapeutic activity and disease reversal across a range of autoimmune disorders including diabetes, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune liver diseases (ALD) and IBD while consistently preserving the immune system’s ability to resist viral, microbial, and tumour challenges.

The agreement with Genentech is for development of Navacim treatments for CD, ALD and IBD. Parvus has previously entered into a licence and collaboration agreement with Novartis to apply the Navacim technology to the development of Navicim drugs to treat Type 1 diabetes. 

“As a researcher, it is a privilege to have the potential opportunity to make an impact on the lives of people who suffer from these conditions,” says Dr. Santamaria, a member of the Snyder Institute of Chronic Diseases and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary.

“Our collaboration with Genentech is now the second partnership that we’ve entered into with a major biopharmaceutical company, which we believe reinforces the potential of our Navacim immunoregulatory therapeutic platform,” says Curtis Ruegg, PhD, president and CEO of Parvus, which has offices in Calgary and San Francisco. “Partnering with Genentech will enable Parvus to expand the Navacim pipeline to address several debilitating autoimmune diseases in gastroenterology.”

For more information on this announcement, see the news release from Parvus Therapeutics.

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