Some Ideas Need a CEO
February 2016—Justin Hanes knows a good business venture when he sees one. When he was just 11 years old, he convinced the local newspaper to hire him even though he was a year shy of its minimum age. Soon, he had a monopoly on all morning and evening paper routes in his neighborhood. Now, as a chemical engineer at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, he brings that same entrepreneurial drive to challenging biomedical problems.
A Natural Barrier
One “problem” Hanes focuses on is mucus. Mucus is essential to animals, lubricating and protecting many areas of the body. But it can cause problems when it becomes too thick, as in cystic fibrosis, or when it shields diseased tissues from drugs. The latter problem is Hanes’ specialty, and he was intrigued by the increased challenge posed by cystic fibrosis.
Hanes, a member of the Wilmer Eye Institute, says many researchers tried to develop therapy delivery vehicles — usually biodegradable capsules surrounding the drug or gene of choice — that would stick to mucus and thereby cover the surface of the target tissue. The problem was that none of those vehicles were good at actually getting through the mucus to the tissue underneath. So Hanes decided to try the opposite tack: penetration.
“Mucus is like a spiderweb,” he says. “If you want to get through it, your best strategy is to be small and slippery.”
His strategy worked, and his research team created nanoparticles that could slip like Teflon through mucus to achieve longer-lasting contact and broader coverage of target tissues. Before submitting results to a journal, he applied for a patent. Then he called Bob Langer, his graduate mentor from MIT. Hanes still gets goose bumps thinking back to the first time he heard Langer give a lecture. “I knew I wanted to work with him,” he says, “and he’s still my science hero.”
A Company Is Born
Langer, the founder of several companies, including one based partially on Hanes’ graduate work, enthusiastically supported the idea of starting a company around the new technology. And the investors Hanes knew agreed. Soon, he was talking with the Johns Hopkins Office of Technology Transfer, as Tech Ventures was then called.
“In 2009, when I was getting Kala Pharmaceuticals going, it was rather rare to start a pharmaceutical company out of Hopkins,” says Hanes. “I had to convince some members of my conflict-of-interest committee that our finding could impact society only if it was commercialized. Now, startups are encouraged and much more common at Hopkins.”
A highly magnified image of microparticles developed in the Hanes laboratory.
Credit: Jie Fu
After getting the green light from Johns Hopkins, his investment collaborators took over and negotiated an exclusive license of the mucus-penetrating particles technology. And then the really hard work began back at the bench.
Hanes recounts those stressful days: “They say, ‘If you’re going to fail, fail early.’” So far, all his team members had shown was that their particles moved well through mucus. They hadn’t yet shown that they could make a drug work better. So he just had to hope that the first drugs tested worked. They did, and since then, Kala has hit all of its major milestones. It now has multiple products in development, all eyedrops that use drugs in the form of slippery nanoparticles to outmaneuver the eye’s mucosal defenses, delivering higher, more consistent doses of on-the-market drugs. For example, the product that’s closest to market, just starting its second round of phase III clinical trials, smuggles the drug loteprednol into the eye to decrease the pain and inflammation caused by cataract .
“The more medicine we can get into the eye with each application, the fewer applications are required each day, and the higher the patient compliance and benefit,” says Hanes.
A year and a half after Kala was underway, Hanes got together with Johns Hopkins clinicians Peter McDonnell and Peter Campochiaro, both members of the Wilmer Eye Institute, and Christy Wyskiel, now senior adviser to the president of The Johns Hopkins University, to found GrayBug, which he named after his daughters Grayson and Riley, aka “Bug.” GrayBug focuses on eye therapies using injectable drugs, as opposed to Kala’s topical drops.
Grayson (left) and Riley Hanes
“As you might imagine, no one likes to get eye injections, much less once every month or two, which is the current requirement for drugs that treat age-related macular degeneration,” says Hanes. “GrayBug’s technologies keep the drugs in the eye for many months, potentially decreasing injections to twice a year.”
Of course, his companies add a lot to his already busy schedule, but he believes founding them was the right thing to do. If he had just licensed the technologies to a company, they might have been developed for a single purpose and then forgotten. As it stands, the Kala technology alone — which can also deliver drugs to the GI tract, lungs, vagina and rectum — is more likely to be developed to its full potential.
Hanes also credits his entrepreneurial work with greatly enhancing the impact of his academic research. It has given him expanded access to pioneers in both academia and industry, and has forced him to think more about how to create a product that will make a difference, which is ultimately what motivates him.
“It all goes back to a desire to help people,” says Hanes, who wanted to become a doctor until he realized he could reach even more people by designing better medicines. Now, that entrepreneurial spirit is becoming part of the fabric of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Sixteen companies were founded in 2015 alone, up from 10 in 2009, when Kala was founded.
“It’s a really exciting time to be here,” says Hanes. “Hopkins has been a sleeping giant when it comes to the commercialization of its own technologies; that potential is being unleashed like never before, and Baltimore is waking up with it.”