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From cancer vaccines to a cure for allergies

Posted By Karin Kloosterman On April 14, 2008 @ 8:27 am In | No Comments

Opening up a new world for disease treatment: Anat Eitan, founder and CEO of AllergyFight and VacciGuard.

Unlike the world of high-tech, Israel’s biotech community is populated with women leading life-changing companies into the new millennium. They are CEOs and business development experts who sniff out new technology possibilities from Israeli academia and then bring them to life.

One of these women is Anat Eitan, the founder and CEO of two young biotech startups AllergyFight and VacciGuard. After working at Teva Pharmaceuticals in innovative R&D for 12 years, “I learned all I needed to know for developing drugs,” Eitan tells ISRAEL21c.

Before becoming an entrepreneur she was the CEO of Metabogal (now Protalix), and worked as a consultant in technology transfer.

Recognizing an opportunity in the research of Prof. Irun Cohen from the Weizmann Institute of Science, early last year Eitan founded VacciGuard within the Misgav Venture Accelerator.

The company, which intends to develop vaccines against diseases such as lung cancer, could improve the odds for the 350,000 Americans who die from lung cancer each year.

Now in the stage of establishing the proof-of-concept in animal models for both West Nile Virus and lung cancer vaccines, VacciGuard, if it passes clinical trials, could open up an entire new world for disease treatment.

“VacciGuard enables the body’s immune system to effectively respond to non-immunogenic antigens, such as peptides or polysaccharides, expressed either on pathogens or cancer tissues,” says Eitan. “These antigens usually do not activate the immune system to generate effective antibodies against themselves.”

In other words, VacciGuard technology converts weak antigens into strong immunogens and creates remarkably effective vaccines, she explains.

The lung-cancer vaccine of VacciGuard would be administered after cancer surgery and chemotherapy when the doctor removes the primary tumor, at which point survival from lung cancer is pretty low – about 15 percent over five years. Cancer re-occurrence is very likely at this point and Eitan hopes that VacciGuard will be able to stop cancer in its tracks.

It could also work against other pathogens such as meningitis and pneumonia.

Her second company AllergyFight, supported by the Ashkelon Technology Incubator, was initiated in late 2007.

Rather than mask the symptoms of allergies, which is how most drugs work today, AllergyFight’s technology, based on the research of Prof. Israel Pecht from the Weizmann, and Prof. Anna Erdei of the Budapest University, Hungary, is founded on a disease modifying agent, rather than one that just alleviates symptoms.

Allergies afflict about 40-50 million people in the US every year and among them about 36 million also suffer from seasonal allergic rhinitis, or hay fever. Besides the misery allergies cause, they can also lead to life-threatening conditions. A safe and effective drug for preventing and treating allergies is very much needed.

Eitan is happy to play her part, and recognizes a strong entrepreneurial playing field in Israel, open to both men and women. “Being an entrepreneur is something in my nature,” she says. “I always felt that I would become one.”

With two children of her own, she likens the development of new drugs to childrearing. “To take something from a beginning stage and to bring it to maturation, I see the connection between my work and the feminine spirit.”

And if Eitan wasn’t working on developing news drugs, she could easily see herself shift into the life of a world-traveler – a sort of anthropologist living among a tribe in Africa or deep in the jungle somewhere.

Maybe in her next life?