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Mission Bay Biotech Companies Join the Fight Against COVID-19

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From left: Deepak Srivastava. Photo: Gladstone Institutes. Ali Ozes (left) and Osman Ozes (right), co-founders of Altay Therapeutics, Inc. Photo: Derya Ozes

During the first quarter of 2020 Mission Bay biotechnology companies and nonprofits pivoted from researching a wide variety of illnesses to focusing principally on creating COVID-19 diagnostic tests, medical interventions, and vaccines. Some of these entities now face supply chain delays and shutdowns. They’re working to source the live animals and chemicals needed for their work from Bay Area companies.

In March, Gladstone Institutes, a biomedical research nonprofit located on Owens Street, sought approval from federal, state, and local governments to work with a live strain of COVID-19, so as to develop new medical therapies and vaccines.

“Local residents should be confident that the one room in the building where work will be done will be confined and secure,” said Dr. Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes president and a pediatric cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Benioff Children’s Hospital. “They should also be proud that local researchers are a part of the effort to combat this disease.” 

According to Srivastava, accessing the laboratory will require penetrating several layers of physical barriers, as well as multiple digital security obstacles. “Under no circumstances will the air in the room be released from it, even in the event of a disaster. Employees in the room will wear full respirator suits. They will also have to undergo training to do work there,” said Srivastava. 

The building, in which roughly 50 Gladstone Institutes staff will research COVID-19, houses the Gladstone Institute for Virology and Immunology. Srivastava said Gladstone Institutes and UCSF are closely affiliated independent entities which often collaborate. 

“When it comes to COVID-19, we’re working as a team with UCSF and other colleagues in the Bay Area,” said Srivastava. 

Gladstone’s anticipated live strain research is part of a tri-pronged effort to combat COVID-19. “The first project is development of a better diagnostic test for COVID-19,” said Srivastava. “It’s designed to give at the point of care, like in a patient’s home. We want to make the test rapid and inexpensive.” 

Srivastava said the test differs from Abbott Laboratories’ 15-minute examination because samples won’t need to be sent to a lab or require advanced machinery. “Our test would be administered and provide a result in the field. This would help significantly in remote areas where there may not be a hospital nearby, or in schools or airports, as we relax our restrictions,” said Srivastava. 

The second project involves examining how the virus takes over human cells, to identify ways to stop it. “We’re looking at the mechanisms the virus utilizes to attack us,” said Srivastava.

According to Srivastava, damage to the heart and lungs by COVID-19 causes most fatalities from the disease. “We’re using computational approaches. We’re screening for drugs to arrest the entry and spread of the virus,” he said. 

Gladstone is also testing a new approach for vaccine development that could bypass the long development timeline typical for most inoculations, which can extend over several years. 

“Instead of the virus hijacking our cells, the new vaccine approach hijacks the virus machinery to make defective copies of itself that don’t do any damage. (This) protects patients from the harmful effects of the virus,” said Srivastava. 

Dr. Warner Greene, Center for HIV Cure Research at Gladstone Institutes director and a professor at the School of Medicine at UCSF, is reviewing the potential for a multitude of FDA-approved drugs to treat COVID-19. Greene plans to test the effectiveness of antibodies and peptides, compounds of amino acids linked in a chain, to treat COVID-19 infections. 

Srivastava said staff have been hampered by reductions in public transportation services and the perceived risks of riding buses and light rail. In response, the nonprofit has been funding rideshares. 

Bob Obana…“our chief operating officer has been very supportive in this area…encouraged managers to approve all reasonable commute costs for essential personnel.” said Simone Taarnskov, Gladstone Institutes administrative assistant. “UCSF also made parking in their structures at the Rutter Center and 1825 4th Street free for our commuters.” 

The Institutes is working with businesses located in Potrero Hill and South San Francisco to provide laboratory supplies. “Fortunately, our shipping and receiving facilities are running well. We are talking with ChemPartner, a preclinical research company, about producing reagents for diagnostic tests. We are also talking to Tenaya Therapeutics, which is based in South San Francisco, about providing us with heart cells,” said Srivastava. 

In the past, Gladstone Institutes has offered educational opportunities to public institutions, including Daniel Webster and Starr King elementary schools and San Francisco International High School. “We’d done workshops in our labs, had staff go out to visit students, and offered summer internship programs to high school students. We’re very proud to be part of the neighborhood,” said Srivastava.

Not all Gladstone Institutes staff are shifting their focus to the pandemic. Dr. Lennart Mucke, Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease director, continues to develop methods to treat Alzheimer’s Disease. However, during shelter-in-place Mucke hasn’t been able to access his laboratory to perform experiments. His team is working remotely to analyze data, plan future trials, and submit grant proposals. 

At the Bayer CoLaborator, located at Mission Bay Boulevard, Dr. Ali Ozes, co-founder and chief executive officer of Altay Therapeutics, Inc., visits his laboratory every other day from his home in San Bruno. Ozes is monitoring the health of human-derived lung and liver cells, part of an effort to develop a drug to reduce inflammation and fibrosis, thickening and scarring of connective tissue, in lungs. Before the pandemic, Altay was primarily focused on fostering treatments for liver fibrosis and liver cancer.

“We changed course in early March as we came to understand the seriousness of the pandemic,” said Ozes. “At our current rate, we may be able to get fast-track approval for the drug for lung inflammation caused by COVID-19 in 14 to 18 months.”

Ozes said Altay’s drug could help COVID-19 patients recover from lung injuries. “Since the drug inhibits inflammation, concerns may be reduced or stopped to the point that the body can begin to repair. The drug can also potentially reverse damaged tissue. We’ve seen this in our liver fibrosis animal tests. More mouse data is required to test the reversal effect as to lung fibrosis,” said Ozes. 

Since the pandemic began, Altay has experienced delays in getting data from Chinese collaborators. “Although shipping and receiving is doing well at the CoLaborator, the pandemic has led to closures in foreign labs and the unavailability of some materials,” said Ozes.

Ozes is exploring whether animal tests can be conducted by companies located in South San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland. He’s also coping with being a solo practitioner. “Normally my father and co-founder of the company, Osman Ozes, would be here as well. Yet he’s over 60 and is trying to stay home to remain healthy. For the time being, I will be doing everything on my own,” said Ozes. 

The loss of in-person meetings has made securing funding for the company challenging. “Our two-minute presentation to angel investors was reduced to one PowerPoint slide with three to four bullets. We were able to attract some funding, which will allow us to continue. It’s not as much as we hoped for. We are still currently fundraising to help our program move forward,” said Ozes. 

Dr. Chris Haskell, head of the Bayer CoLaborator, said the Mission Bay incubator has remained open, an essential service provider under the City’s definition of “health care operations.” The facility “…has the strong support of the landlord for our Mission Bay location, Alexandria Real Estate. We are noticing a significant drop off in the number of people on site as the companies are reducing activities,” said Haskell. 

According to Haskell, it’s challenging to find biotech space in San Francisco. “South San Francisco is growing significantly, which is great for the industry in our broader region. But this then lacks the direct proximity with UCSF, which is a missed opportunity…why the Bayer CoLaborator and other San Francisco incubators still serve such a critical function,” said Haskell. 

Dr. Julia Kirshner, founder and chief executive officer of zPREDICTA, a biotech company in San Jose, said her enterprise is grappling with closures and delays, which is slowing COVID-19-related and other work. “We rely on core facilities at the universities around the Bay Area…are currently closed. Unfortunately, we had to pause some of the ongoing projects that rely on the instrumentation at those core facilities,” said Kirshner. 

zPREDICTA has launched a project to develop a laboratory system to screen new and “repurposed” drugs to treat COVID-19. 

John Chi, founder and chief executive officer of Synova Life Sciences, a Pasadena-based biotech company, said his company has had to scale back operations. He’s only one of two workers still visiting the office. “I stay less than an hour, making sure my time doesn’t overlap with that of anyone else in the lab. I’m very careful, because there are 20 other companies in the building. We’re constantly disinfecting surfaces,” said Chi. 

Synova has developed a device that rapidly extracts mesenchymal stem cells from fat. These types of stem cells develop into connective tissue, blood vessels, and lymphatic tissue. They also act as an anti-inflammatory, calming the immune system. 

“Our work could assist COVID-19 patients (with) acute respiratory distress syndrome. We’re reaching out to hospitals, including potentially UCSF, to engage in clinical trials,” said Chi. 

Jared Friedman, a Y Combinator (YC) partner who advises biotech and healthcare companies, connecting them with one another, investors, experts, and health care providers. “More than 25 YC bio and healthcare companies are helping with the COVID-19 crisis…to produce better tests, treatments and vaccines…resources for hospitals and health systems,” said Friedman. 

“The more people that understand that a viral infection affects everyone, every community, helps us work together to end this epidemic,” said Ozes.

Srivastava said the City has done a good job keeping residents and the biotech industry “informed and responsive to the shelter-in-place order. We’re proud of Mayor Breed for instituting the shelter-in-place early on,” said Srivastava. 

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