Pictured above: (from the left) Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, Steve Case, Dr. John Herr, and Secretary of Technology Jim Duffey.
Dr. John Herr is a Professor of Cell Biology, Urology and BioMedical Engineering at the University of Virginia Medical School in Charlottesville where he founded the Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive Health. His research laboratory focuses on discovering novel genes involved in sperm and egg formation and on defining and characterizing functions of the proteins these genes encode. The research team has a special interest in identifying those genes that play a role in fertilization and in genes that are only expressed, among all normal organs, in the testis or the ovary within maturing eggs and sperm. The group is interested in basic, fundamental research as well as inventing useful products from their discoveries. Dr. Herr holds 26 issued patents and has founded three biotechnology companies. Humagen, ContraVac and most recently, Neoantigenics. ContraVac markets the SpermCheck line of immunodiagnostic products designed to identify male infertility due to low sperm count. The SpermCheck products are FDA, EU and Health Canada-approved and employ monoclonal antibodies to a sperm-specific biomarker. SpermCheck Fertility helps a couple identify male factor infertility due to low sperm count while SpermCheck Vasectomy aids in determining when vasectomy surgery has become effective. The SpermCheck products are based on the discovery and patenting of a specific molecule found only in the head of the sperm. Dr. Herr’s recent company, Neoantigenics, is focused on cancer therapeutics that target a select set of molecules found on the surface of cancer cells. This set of molecules is found among normal tissues only in the ovary in growing eggs [oocytes]. Because of their normal restriction to growing eggs, these molecules, when they are synthesized in cancers, have the potential to offer a method to selectively target the tumor cells and potentially reduce unwanted drug side-effects. Dr. Herr’s lab is guided by the philosophy of Louis Pasteur: “There is neither basic nor applied science, there is only science in the cause of humankind.”
CIT: Tell us about your current venture
Dr. Herr: Neoantigenics formed around intellectual properties that grew from 15 years of fundamental studies of the proteins [proteome] found in ovulated eggs. The lab has identified several unique proteins that are normally expressed only by mature egg cells…but surprisingly are also expressed by many tumor cells in ovarian, uterine, pancreatic and kidney cancers. The selective nature of these egg-associated cancer markers should confer exquisite specificity to a therapeutic targeting these proteins. The identification of these proteins in a given cancer will also allow oncologists to predict whether a targeted therapeutic will work for a given patient – the goal of personalized medicine.
Neoantigenics was formed as a Virginia-incorporated, Charlottesville-based biotechnology company to apply the Herr Lab’s patent-pending research to create novel cancer “theranostics” – meaning the combination of a therapeutic with a companion diagnostic – with the specific goal of creating unique, effective treatments for cancers of high unmet medical need.
Neoantigenics is approaching this challenge by initially focusing on an egg-associated cancer protein target described called SAS1B. Our strategy is to use known and accessible antibody technology to construct a biological drug that will home to SAS1B-expressing tumor cells but leave normal cells untouched. Tumor cells (like the uterine cancer tissues reacting with SAS1B antibody and stained brown, at right), can be killed with SAS1B-targeted antibodies and a coupled toxin molecule. This result provided proof-of-concept that we can deliver a toxic “warhead” to tumor cells and eliminate them via the SAS1B tumor cell surface target.
The medical need in this field is acute: over 100,000 patients in the US and over 270,000 patients in the developed world are diagnosed annually with SAS1B-positive urogenital cancers.1 And the number of patients acquiring these cancers is growing. Clearly the clinical market exists, our science is distinctive and promising, and the opportunity to participate in an endeavor of societal importance is compelling.
CIT: What advice would you give an aspiring entrepreneur?
Dr. Herr: Maintain focus on useful and effective products or services. Identify and address important unmet human needs. At life’s end you cannot fill your casket with greenbacks... so take risks with your own capital along the way... stay focused on the development pathway for the product or service and derive your primary succor from successful product or service execution... irrespective of financial outcomes. Learn from every setback. Think big: Envision big outcomes while maintaining daily attention to incremental milestones. Write a “To Do” list every day. Execute the list.
CIT: What events/meetup groups are essential for startups?
Dr. Herr: Rather than emphasize a given meeting, it is important to cultivate entrepreneurial traits... beginning with the acknowledgement that multiple constituencies are required to execute big ideas and address the grand challenges of our world. We live within a delicate web of interdependencies. Everyone you meet has the potential to offer something to advance the entrepreneurship journey: perspectives, knowledge, contacts, tools, and capital. The challenge comes in opening yourself sufficiently to receive the unique offerings of each person that you greet.
CIT: How important is collaboration and knowledge sharing to you?
Dr. Herr: Be fearless in defining and broadly discussing your vision. Successful team building and partnerships are critical as big visions depend on assembling around oneself people of greater skill and talent than you yourself possess. Give up power and control early in the process and delegate responsibilities. Build mission fever within your organization. Encourage others to tell you immediately when your ideas are wrong and assemble around yourself people who actively seek to disprove your theories.
CIT: What makes Charlottesville’s tech scene unique?
Dr. Herr: Charlottesville is emerging as a high tech hub. The University is actively engaged in the innovation ecosystem by supporting invention, translational science, proof-of-concept research, and start-ups. Tenure and promotion decisions at the University have added new metrics that include patent disclosures, patents issued, patents licensed, companies formed, social impact, and job creation as milestones worthy of consideration for tenure and promotion decisions. Experienced managers have chosen Charlottesville as a home and are available to partner with faculty entrepreneurs. Capital networks are strengthening. There have been high visibility successes which serve as models for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Dr. John Herr, Founder of ContraVac and Neoantigenics