When it was time for PvP Biologics to test its promising treatment for celiac disease, the Seattle startup wanted to keep things local. They needed a meal, something that would test their drug’s ability to neutralize gluten in conditions that mimicked the human stomach.
So they did what any self-respecting team of Seattleites would do.
“We got a hamburger and a vanilla milkshake from the Dick’s Drive-In in Wallingford,” said Ingrid Pultz, co-founder and chief scientific officer of PvP. “If we were going to get a hamburger, it might as well be from Dick’s. It’s a Seattle institution.”
PvP had already tested their lead candidate, KumaMax, on a bread-and-water “slurry” and on beer with encouraging results. That experiment went so well that the team celebrated, naturally, by drinking the rest of the beer, a wheat style from Bend, Ore.-based Deschutes Brewery.
“That was a fun day,” said Pultz.
Gluten is a family of proteins that causes a damaging immune response in people with celiac disease. PvP thought that the right enzyme could break down gluten in the stomach and act as a treatment.
The problem is that people don’t drink bread slurries. We often eat bread, and therefore gluten, alongside other proteins such as those found in meat and dairy. The enzyme that PvP developed would have to be selective in which proteins it attached to — busting up gluten, but not meat or dairy proteins.
That’s what made the order from Dick’s so special: for around $5, the team had a feast that could test their enzyme in conditions that mimic real life.
Employees labeled the takeout order as lab equipment. They then blended it up, acidified the mixture to mimic the stomach environment, and added the KumaMax enzyme.
In the end, the enzyme worked. “That was the experiment in which we said, ‘We have our lead molecule,'” said Pultz.
A little more than a year later, in 2017, PvP announced a deal with Japanese drug giant Takeda, which gave the startup $35 million to complete a phase 1 clinical trial, at which point Takeda has the option to purchase the startup.
The FDA hasn’t approved any treatments for celiac disease. Cambridge, Mass.-based ImmusanT is developing a vaccine that aims to make celiac patients tolerant to gluten. The therapy was fast-tracked by the FDA earlier this year.
PvP originated in 2011 as a student project that won iGEM, a student competition for synthetic biology. The students moved on, but Pultz, who was their advisor, decided to pursue the idea. “It turns out the molecule we made was really promising. I didn’t want to let it languish on the shelf,” she said.
Over the course of many years, Pultz worked with co-founders David Baker and Justin Siegel to improve the original student-made compound with the help of Rosetta, a program for designing proteins from scratch. If KumaMax is ever sold commercially, the students who filed the original intellectual property will receive royalties.
Baker is the head of the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington, a lab that has spun out several startups over the years, including Arzeda, Cyrus Biotechnology, A-Alpha Bio and most recently Neoleukin Therapeutics. The institute recently won a $45 million grant from The Audacious Project at TED.
As for their love of Dick’s Drive-In, Pultz and the PvP team aren’t alone: Fellow Seattle-area techie Bill Gates has been known to stand in line for a cheeseburger and fries on occasion.