‘In my more than 35 years as a professional in the health management and medical distribution field, I’ve never seen so many interesting close to market, simple and elegant solutions’ – VIBSCC executive director, Donna Edmonds.An Israeli treatment that may help cure over 30 types of cancer is likely to see the light of day much quicker – thanks in part to a small group of businessman, state officials and bioscience management professionals based in Richmond, Virginia. The technology developed by startup BioCancell is just one of the many Israeli innovations that the group hopes to bring to their city.
Representatives from the group – comprising the Virginia Israel Advisory Board, a branch office of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, the Virginia Israel Biosciences Commercialization Center (VIBSCC), the Virginia Biosciences Development Center, a life sciences research park in Richmond hosting 60 private companies, a university medical center and clinical hospital – were in Israel last week to promote their latest initiative, ‘Gateway America,’ aimed at luring Israeli companies developing unprecedented solutions to treating ailments and terminal diseases to the US market.
“Israel needs to move away from thinking that opportunities in the US are only in California, New York, and the major coastal cities,” said Ralph Robbins, executive director of the Virginia Israel Advisory Board, referring to the lack of attention Israeli companies pay to less familiar US cities.
With the support of his boss Kaine, the year-old Gateway America program was launched to bolster the state’s stake in Israeli developments in the life sciences.
“Israeli technologies are recognized around the world for their innovation, advanced development, and functionality, and Virginia is proud to continue its expansion into the biosciences field with a leading international partner,” Kaine said in an official statement about the program.
That statement is backed up by statistics released by the Israel Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, which shows that Israeli researchers lead the world in the number of life science patents issued per capita. There are almost 900 Israeli companies in various stages of development working on life science industry-related products.
The ‘Gateway America’ representatives were in Israel to choose a limited number of program participants from the country’s packed field of life science companies, in addition to cultivating their first Virginia-Israel partnership with BioCancell. The companies chosen for the program will be regularly counseled and invited to attend a December conference at the Development Center in Richmond where they will be offered business counseling, exposure to major US medical distributors and investors, hospital access to carry out clinical trials, funding, and marketing strategy sessions.
Committee member and VIBSCC executive director, Donna Edmonds, confirmed they had narrowed the field to 300 Israeli companies with products in an advanced enough stage of development to be considered for the program, but met with only 30 on this trip.
“In my more than 35 years as a professional in the health management and medical distribution field, I’ve never seen so many interesting close to market, simple and elegant solutions,” Edmonds told ISRAEL21c after three days of interviews.
Products pitched to the committee included improved drug delivery mechanisms, advancements in laparoscopic surgery, and a wide array of platform drugs, or drugs applicable to a range of diseases, including cancer.
Both VIBSCC and the Virginia Biosciences Development Center that will host the new companies do not expect the Israelis to transfer development to the US, but rather to establish branches there for product expansion.
“The Israeli market isn’t big enough for companies to be successful. Israeli companies have to go to Europe or the US to expand their products,” said another committee member and the Development Center’s executive director, David Lohr.
BioCancell is among VIBSCC’s first clients. The Jerusalem-based biopharmaceutical corporation has patented all use of a single human gene for research purposes. The tumor enabling gene, called H19, was discovered by Hebrew University professor Avraham Hochberg 19 years ago and is expressed in more than two dozen types of cancer.
The discovery led to BioCancell’s incorporation in 2004 and the company is now among the world leaders in utilizing plasmids, or self-replicating DNA molecules to treat cancer patients.
The company’s research team discovered a way to identify if H19 is expressed in a cancer patient’s cells and essentially turn the gene off by injecting its product, a plasmid called BC-819. The plasmid is only activated by cells that express H19, therefore does not harm healthy cells or other body systems. The key innovation of the drug is that only the cancerous tissue is destroyed without the side effects typically experienced by cancer patients undergoing intense chemical therapies where healthy tissue is affected as well.
BioCancell is now completing clinical trials concentrated on bladder cancer in Israel and readying to launch trials in the US. VIBSCC and the Development Center’s management will facilitate the company’s ability to conduct these US clinical trials, which pending Federal Drug Administration approval will lead to additional assistance in their eventual US marketing strategy and distribution.
“The key advantage to working with US specialists in the life sciences and VIBSCC is their knowledge of the American market,” said BioCancell’s director of strategic alliances, Ran Vigdor. The small company needs the contacts and manpower capable of pushing a product into the US market, which is where the appealing packaged deal of the Gateway Program steps in.
The goal of VIBSCC is to seek out companies like BioCancell and offer them entry into the US market via opportunities in Virginia.
Finding qualified companies won’t be a problem according to members of the visiting Gateway America Committee.
“The huge challenge is choosing from the quality of all the companies we saw and to sort them to only three to five,” concluded Lohr.