Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Look at Tucson's Calimmune and $20 Milllion

The global headquarters of Calimmune, Inc., which shares in a $20 million grant from the California stem cell agency, stands on one of the more unlovely thoroughfares in Arizona.

The three-year-old firm is only a short walk on East Broadway in Tucson from O'Reilly Chevrolet and a Burger King. While Calimmune's address may not electrify folks on Wall Street, it has a pedigree that it is hard to quibble with.

By one account, Calimmune was founded by David Baltimore (see photo), a former member of the board of directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency. Baltimore also is a Nobel Prize winner and former president of Caltech. Other accounts state that Irvin Chen, director of the UCLA AIDS Institute, was a co-founder.

Late last month, California's stem cell agency approved a $20 million grant to Chen and Geoff Symonds, chief scientific officer of Calimmune, a little-known company with no Web site but a laboratory in Australia, lab space in Pasadena, Ca., and more facilities soon to come at UCLA.

CIRM said the grant was aimed at generating an FDA application in four years for a clinical trial “to treat HIV/AIDS using an RNA interference approach to modify the patient’s blood-forming stem cells. When transplanted back, those cells will produce T cells that are resistant to HIV infection.”

The proposal echoes Calimmune goals articulated earlier on the Web site of Grayhawk Capital, a private equity investment company in Phoenix, Az., that has cash in Calimunne. Some initial research involving Symonds and UCLA was published last February with partial funding from Johnson & Johnson in Australia.

In response to email queries, Calimmune's CEO, Louis Breton, told the California Stem Cell Report that Symonds will perform his CIRM-funded work in California. He said the closely held firm is aware that CIRM is barred from funding out-of-state grants. Breton did not respond to questions about the number of Calimmune employees and their locations, although he said he anticipated more hiring for the CIRM grant. He said the Tucson location houses a small administrative staff. The company is incorporated in Delaware.

As for Calimmune's funding, we asked Breton whether any originated with Johnson & Johnson. Until the last year or so, Symonds was senior research director at Johnson & Johnson Research Pty Ltd. in Sydney, Australia, where the Calimmune lab is located. According to one report earlier this year, he holds more than $10,000 in Johnson & Johnson stock. At least one of the other Calimmune scientists in Australia worked as well for Johnson & Johnson until February. Breton, however, said none of the company's funding originated with Johnson & Johnson. Grayhawk did not respond our email query.

A Johnson & Johnson company document said in 2008 that the purpose of the Johnson & Johnson research operation involving Symonds was “to identify new medical discoveries in Australia and facilitate their commercial development into new products for Johnson & Johnson.”

CIRM reviewers were enthusiastic about Chen and Symonds disease team project. A CIRM summary of the application said,
“Reviewers stated that the resources and investigators are outstanding and the team is superb, both scientifically and in therapy development. The Disease Team comprises a collaboration between two complementary groups, one academic and one corporate. Each brings unique expertise to the project, with the academic group providing scientific know-how and proof of concept and the corporate group providing expertise in biologics development and commercialization. The team leaders are accomplished, highly productive investigators with a demonstrated track record in the field of HIV research, gene therapy, and/or clinical drug development. Key members of this team made the initial scientific observations leading to their hypothesis and demonstrated proof of concept in tissue culture and relevant models. A subset of the team has direct experience with a gene therapy trial in humans.”

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