Crowdfunding an HIV Vaccine: Dr. Rubsamen of Immunity Project

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LogoIt’s been a short, but action packed few months since we were introduced to The Immunity Project‘s goal to “develop a free vaccine for HIV/AIDS”.

The organization’s aptly named Twitter handle is @hackHIV and they’re the second nonprofit organization ever to be backed by Bay Area Incubator, Y-Combinator (YC).

For those just tuning in, The Immunity Project is a nonprofit initiative using a unique combination of crowdfunding and venture capital, along with a novel machine learning approach in devising an HIV vaccine. Since the official YC announcement and launch of their crowdfunding campaign, they’ve successfully raised an initial goal of $482,000; to fund final immunization experiments before undergoing Phase I clinical studies.

The Eventual Goal?

“Get into human clinical testing as quickly as possible with the goal of distributing the product for free after FDA approval.

How it Works

1 in 300 HIV patients are born with a natural immunity to HIV and are known as HIV controllers. Through analyzing data from applied machine learning and statistical analysis of HIV controller blood samples, the team have been able to identify specific biomarkers that controllers’ cells exhibit when targeting weakpoints in the HIV virus. They then isolate the controller targets and formulate them into a vaccine application, and prepare them for delivery through a nasal inhaler.

By doing things this way, they’ve looked to solve the following problems with traditional HIV treatments:

  • Safety: Other HIV vaccine prototypes may use live, killed, or genetically-modified viruses. By delivering controller targets, and not the virus itself, they look to mimic the natural HIV immunity these controllers hold.
  • Portability:  Their vaccine makes use of nasal spray delivered microspheres which don’t require refrigeration, therefore bypassing key distribution challenges on a worldwide scale.

Learn more about the process here.

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Meet the Team

Today, we share insights and thoughts from project Co-Founder, Dr. Reid Rubsamen. He also sits as CEO to Flow Pharma, Inc. which holds claim to the novel inhalable, microsphere delivery mechanism that will serve as the vaccine’s vehicle.

Before we begin, he reminds us of the different players involved in the project, billing it as a great example of multi-disciplinary innovation.

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Inspired to End an Epidemic

As of 2011, the annual death toll for AIDS-related mortalities was estimated to be 1.7 million (close to 4,700 people per day).

Dr. Rubsamen explains his personal experience and why he’d entered the HIV/AIDS research field:

Being a a medical intern in the 1980’s in San Francisco, he had unusually good training in immunology while at Stanford and got to use one of the first FACS (cell sorter) machines in the lab he was in – these are now commonly used in immunology research.

Despite their work, they felt helpless to assist the inpatients diagnosed with AIDS. While he didn’t routinely see young people dying from AIDS, he’d grasped the severity of the situation while working in the field. According to Dr. Rubsamen, the Immunity Project represents what he feels is the best IT/Biotech collaboration in history – a perfect opportunity for him to leverage his medical and computer science background to make a safe and effective HIV vaccine.

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Communication is Key

By now, you may have noticed a few things about The Immunity Project as a whole. We’ve used the term “novel approach”, specifically with their vaccine development, but their novel approach as an organization has been even more intriguing.

With a clean startup-reminiscent website, successful crowdfunding campaign, YC backing, and even a high traffic Reddit AMA thread hosted by Dr. Rubsamen himself, it has been clear from the start there’s something unique about this project.

Take a look into the Reddit thread and you get a glimpse of the strong feelings in support of, and against. Included with the many well wishes and thank you’s, there have also been, dissenters, quick to point out their “slick marketing”, or to discredit them as “frauds”- with reasonings in the line of “how simple it would be for organizations like the Gates Foundation to fund them if they were actually legitimate.”

Note: The Reddit thread doubles as a great FAQ. I actually dismissed a lot of the original questions I’d originally planned on asking Dr. Rubsamen. Make sure to give it a read. 

Dr. Rubsamen discusses his most important takeaways from these exercises:

I’m extremely proud of what we’ve been doing so far. The crowd funding campaign’s done a ton in raising awareness to the public, in discussing extremely technical nature of T-Cell vaccination. We had 73,000 unique views over 6 hours from Reddit alone.

I think it’s a huge win for everybody when we’re able to bring something like this into public context, instead of page 98 of an obscure medical journal. It’s about pursuing open science and letting people know what we’re doing. Our plan is to put lab videos up, show our procedures, and really show what it’s like to be a scientist working in this field. It’s just how we work and why we’re so enthusiastic.”

Stepping Outside the Box

We take a moment to discuss The Immunity Project’s decision in working with Y-Combinator. While YC’s undisputably known as the leading innovators in the incubator space, it’s notable that The Immunity Project is the second time every that they’ve accepted a nonprofit organization in their ranks.

“This is certainly a new sort of company for us, but it’s the kind of crazy idea we like.” – Sam Altman, YC Partner

Dr. Rubsamen points out The Immunity Project is the result of multiple parties:

“Our original plan was to organically grow a consortium that shared the vision, and shared profits to accumulate cash to do the study. That’s still the plan, but joining YC’s accelerated everything a lot. By working with them, we’d have an extremely widespread way to get connected – to contacts across different industries, and to use communication tools.”

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“People are Intelligent”

Dr. Rubsamen provides additional insights into what he’s learned:

“If it weren’t for my partner Naveen and our experience in YC so far, I wouldn’t have been able to see the well of thought and possibilities of communicating our campaign like this. I’m extremely fastinated by the use of communication tools to tell the complex story and to generate productive dialogue.

Something else I learned from the Reddit AMA. People are intrinsically smart. They’re not dumb, and they genuinely want to learn more. In the medical field, sometimes you spend your life at a university doing research. You work with obscure topics, among obscure people, and the work is extremely advanced – not easily graspable by people who are interested in hearing.

Let’s Talk Funding

As a reminder, The Immunity Project focuses on creating a preventative vaccine, not a cure for the virus itself. As we know, with President Obama’s recent revealing of a $100 Million HIV research initiative, a lot of government funding would be moved towards efforts to find a cure. Laudable of course, but it does leave vaccine oriented groups like the Immunity Project needing to find other ways to fund their projects.

It’s notable to point out that this initial $482,000 raised through crowdfunding efforts is to complete a final round of experimentation before moving to clinical trials. $25 Million will be needed to complete Phase I clinical trials, and $20 Million for Phase II. Here’s a quick breakdown of what the crowd-funded amount will fund.

Immunity Project BudgetMy conversation with Dr. Rubsamen makes me realize how easy it might seem to get ahead of oneself when working on a project this huge.

While skeptcial sentiments seem to dismiss everything as all or nothing, Dr. Rubsamen does a good job of reminding me where the project stands and what some next goals are.

  • Organizations like the Gates Foundation are potentially in the pipeline to provide funding for the next (much) larger portions of the project. But, they need to see more testing and experimentation data. Findings are early-stage but promising, and this portion is what the crowdfunding campaign pays for.
  • They are also delivery focused. By asking themselves the question: “how can we create a delivery system for a single epitope”, they’ve also enabled others to discover new targets without using a live virus.
  • More importantly, there are more people today who understand the term “HIV controller” than a month ago. To Dr. Rubsamen, that can’t be a bad thing.

“If we can contribute to the dialogue and make that contribution transparent, even better. Maybe it’ll inspire someone else, or give a researcher a new idea in developing a cure for cancer, or push someone to take up the medical path and allow them to think about something else they hadn’t considered.”

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Some Final Words

As we wrapped up the call, the gravity of all this hit me in the face with a massive weight.

HIV/AIDS has, to say the least, been an impossibly difficult problem to tackle for both private and publically funded ventures. It’s clearly a heavyweight problem, but despite all this, Dr. Rubsamen’s tone was extremely animated and optimistic. Seriously, he was practically shouting at me over the phone the entire time. Detecting his enthusiasm was as simple as black or white.

His final words from our conversation:

“It’s astonishing how interesting it’s been in talking about an obscure medical topic. If I hadn’t seen such an effective use of internet firsthand, I woulnd’t have believed it. We’re not patting ourselves on the back, there’s still a lot of work to do.

YC has been marveous and with the work Naveen is doing, we’ve learned how to create a message on electronic media, and get it out there in a more effective way. It’s a remarkable way to get people interested about T-Cell vaccines and encourage public policy movement. I haven’t learned so much since graduate school.”

A heartfelt thank you from TechZulu to Dr. Rubsamen and the team at Immunity Project. To learn more on how you can contribute, be sure to visit their website directly!

Extra: They’ve also added the Immunity Project blog, where you can follow closely on progress made!

Tim Wut

Tim Wut was once in pursuit of a paper-laden career in bankruptcy law. He now writes for TechZulu, covering startups and founder stories. He explores the inspiration that drives entrepreneurs and shares lessons learned in the startup trenches. Writer by trade, storyteller at heart.

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  • Bonnie Truong

    thought provoking.

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