In America today, an estimated 1.3 million people suffer from the paralyzing pain of rheumatoid arthritis, and they are badly in need of relief and a cure.

Help could be on the way, thanks to ProtAb (pronounced Pro-tab), an Israeli company that is developing a new antibody treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, a debilitating autoimmune disease.

“We are currently in late stage preclinical trials where we have created Proximab, a monoclonal antibody,” Shira Yair, ProtAb’s CEO tells ISRAEL21c “We’ve had a mouse and rat monoclonal antibody with promise and have successfully completed the stage of humanization.”

It’s still a long way off – the technology won’t be ready for at least another five years – but pre-clinical studies on animal models are definitely promising. In the trials, Promixad was found to immunize and dampen the symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis, holding out the hope of a vaccine against the disease.

Rheumatoid arthritis causes chronic inflammation of the joints. It can also cause inflammation of the tissue around the joints, and to other organs in the body. Like all autoimmune diseases it occurs when the body tissues are mistakenly attacked by the body’s own immune system.

Attacking from the other way around

Sufferers can go long periods without symptoms, but it’s a chronic and progressive illness, which means attacks tend to get worse over the years.

The company’s technology, which is founded on the research of Prof. Yaakov Naparstek from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is based on the development of novel therapeutic agents that affect anti-inflammatory signaling pathways in the body, to treat inflammatory diseases and ones that attack the autoimmune system.

The company’s antibody, Proximab, says Yair, has a unique mode of action: While monoclonal antibodies are common for treatment in rheumatoid arthritis, all currently work to attack the proinflammatory cytokines, the molecules that cause inflammation. “We are looking at the other side of the balance,” she explains.

Rather than attacking the molecules that cause inflammation and swelling in the joints, ProtAb has developed the pre-cursor to a vaccine that works in another direction – it targets the molecules in the body that stop pro-inflammation cytokines from doing their job.

There is no direct competition in this market, she points out, and it fills an important niche for people with rheumatoid arthritis who have nowhere else to turn.

Building milestones for a future cure

Yair says in the next 18 months to two years the company plans to initiate Phase I-IIa clinical trials on its antibody Proximab.

ProtAb is a daughter company of Hadasit Bio-Holdings (HBL), which is a publicly traded company on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. It was founded in 2005 to allow public participation in young biotech companies, says Yair. HBL is the daughter company of Hadasit, the technology transfer arm of Hadassah.

In future, the eight-person team based in Ein Kerem outside of Jerusalem, hopes to tackle additional autoimmune diseases like Type-1 diabetes, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease.

So far the company has received funding from its wholly owned parent company, as well as significant government dollars from Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist for a total of $1.9 million.

While it’s hard creating milestones years in advance, Yair says she enjoys the smaller steps the company makes along the way. “It’s a phenomenal idea and amazing to be working in the environment of Hadassah’s University Hospital,” she says.

“We see there is significant potential to reach a blockbuster market,” she adds. “We are looking at an indication that is very prevalent. There are many patients resistant to current treatments. There is a significant unmet need.”

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