Today, we are speaking to Ichor Life Sciences CEO Dr. Kelsey Moody about the doctoral program that the company operates and how the company is supporting the next generation of scientists.
Ichor Life Sciences is a biotechnology company that develops and manufactures new medicines for people around the world. It is focused on creating treatments for age-related diseases that have traditionally been difficult to treat. The company is based in LaFayette, New York.
Through its doctoral program, this company is giving students the opportunity to receive advanced training in drug discovery and development. Ichor also provides the resources they need to become the next generation of scientists.
Could you tell us who your newly minted PhD is and what they have been focusing on over the last few years?
Ichor’s newly minted PhD is Kris Grohn. Kris joined Ichor in 2015 as an analytical chemist. He made an initial splash on the longevity stage when his work debunked longevity claims associated with the consumption of c60 in olive oil in mouse studies and further demonstrated serious health risks associated with this compound.
Since that time, Kris has led efforts to develop an enzyme therapy for age-related macular degeneration and Stargardt’s disease at Ichor’s portfolio company Lysoclear. This work is the subject of Kris’s thesis and collectively has led to the identification of superior lead enzymes that can degrade bis-retinoid species that have been implicated in the onset and progression of age-associated eye disease.
Ichor has been a pillar of the industry: conducting research, contract researching for others, and running this doctoral program. What was your initial inspiration for setting up this educational initiative?
The goal of this program is to train PhDs who can take foundational research in aging by academic scientists and develop therapeutic modalities that target diseases of aging and aging broadly. We identified that most aging scientists do not have training in fundamental principles of drug development, which we believe has contributed to the slow progression of the space into human clinical trials.
I recall from previous conversations with you that Ichor began life in the living room of your own house. You also worked very hard to get your PhD and develop the company at the same time. How has your experience with your own education shaped how the program at Ichor has developed?
Our experience has led us to understand that academic science and drug development are both important disciplines but significantly diverge regarding skill sets and training. As a contract research organization, we have worked on thousands of projects spanning nearly 100 clients.
The diversity of our experience, combined with lessons from advancing several portfolio programs, has allowed us to create a curriculum that captures the foundational knowledge needed to be a successful academic scientist with industrial rigor and scale.
How can an aspiring researcher get into the program? What about people who are already working for biotech companies who might want to get a PhD, can their company get them into the program?
All graduate students in our program are required to complete at least one year of full-time work with the company to be eligible to apply. This can be a combination of internships and employment.
Additionally, we are working with other companies in the aging space and pharmaceutical partners to expand the scope of the program to allow participation from employees working for companies outside of Ichor who wish to pursue a PhD and will continue to work for their employer.
As a next step, do you help these new PhDs to find work in a lab/company focused on rejuvenation research to help drive our field forward?
We create opportunities for our graduating students to lead internal programs developing drugs for aging, spin out aging-focused companies, or pursue additional technical education at the company. If individuals choose to pursue opportunities outside of Ichor, we have a vast network of clients and partners to help facilitate a smooth and productive transition.
Ok, so let’s pivot a bit. Let’s talk about what you have been doing since we last interviewed you about developing a company to end age-related diseases. How are things going with LYSOCLEAR since we last talked?
Based on Kris’s work, Lysoclear has identified best-in-class enzymes for the removal of ocular lipofuscin, which we believe is causative in age-related macular degeneration and Stargardt’s disease. Our most recent data has led to a funded collaboration with a pharmaceutical partner for further development.
Recently, UNITY announced further lackluster results from localized use of senolytics to treat age-related wet macular degeneration. While there was some improvement, it failed to impress shareholders, where shares were almost halved following the results.
A few years ago, you were using the platform company Antoxerene to explore the potential of senolytics. In the face of these results, are you still confident that senolytics may still prove useful, and are they something you are still investigating?
We are very bullish on the potential of senolytics broadly. In the past few years, we have become increasingly interested in a biophysical phenomenon called liquid-liquid phase separation, which is a major mechanism through which cells regulate themselves but is significantly understudied.
From a drug development perspective, phase separation is a distinct process from the traditional binary protein interactions through which most existing drugs function. We believe many of the failures observed in the development of senolytics, and in the aging space more broadly, may be attributable to developers being unaware of phase separation and its likely role in their pathway of interest.
We have begun publishing a series of academic papers studying phase separation and, internally, are developing extensive capabilities to screen drugs that modulate phase separation mechanisms.
Regarding the contracted research, you absorbed Icaria Life Sciences and Woodland Biosciences into the parent company, Ichor. What was the reasoning behind that, and how is the contract research side of things going?
The expansion of Ichor’s contract research offerings serves three purposes. Firstly, we are located geographically outside of major biopharma hubs, so the relationships we develop with biotechs, pharmaceutical companies, and venture funds who utilize our services allows us to stay connected and identify strategic partnership opportunities for internally developed assets.
Secondly, by being revenue-centric and profitable, we have been able to retain control and avoid dilution on new programs. Lastly, the scope of projects we engage in spans nearly every therapeutic area and therapeutic modality. This experience allows us to provide superior services to our clients and also allows us to develop our internal assets more rapidly.
A few years ago, we discussed bottlenecks to progress. A lot has changed in the last five years with a lot more funding coming in; what do you think is now the biggest barrier to progress in our field?
Treating tool molecules as drugs and incorrect understanding of mechanism of action.
In drug development, there is this concept of a “tool molecule”, e.g. a molecule that leads to some sort of favorable biological outcome that operates via some mechanism of interest.
Way too often, academic scientists in the aging space (spurred by cheap access to capital by unsophisticated investors at unreasonably high valuations) think that tool molecules they have identified can be moved forward as drug candidates. Tool molecules are essential for developing drugs but rarely possess the biophysical, chemical, and physiological characteristics required of a drug candidate. They should only be used as positive controls for assays in the drug development process.
We also see deficiencies in understanding mechanisms of action. We are aware of around a dozen programs that have failed or significantly stalled because promising tool molecules or leads thought to function via a particular mechanism of action (usually a binary protein interaction) actually function via an alternative mechanism (usually liquid-liquid phase separation).
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today about the educational program you are running and about the exciting work you are doing at Ichor.