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ImmunoMet: A JLABS @ TMC resident finds growth in shrinking cancer cells

Dr. Ben Cowen is no stranger to the life sciences scene. With more than 20 years of experience in big pharma, one could reasonably assume he'd be ready to slow down. Ben completed his National institute of Health post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 90s, and hasn't stopped since. He held multiple positions at Merck and Shire, and then he sharpened his saw with startups. With his experience, it's no wonder that he's a sought-after mentor and a natural leader in the JLABS @ TMC ecosystem.

Again, this is a typical point in one's career when you begin to think about sun setting into a comfortable retirement, but not Ben. He laughed at the suggestion and cut me off by saying he's never worked harder in his life than he has since joining ImmunoMet; and he's loving every minute of it.

"The reason I'm here is because we have the potential opportunity to save thousands of lives," said Ben Cowen, CEO of ImmunoMet. "Our drugs address a huge unmet need in the oncology space, and the data is extremely promising. We at ImmunoMet have the potential to make a real difference."

According to Ben, ImmunoMet is a private biotech company that utilizes cellular metabolism to develop both anti-tumor and immuno-oncology therapies. Founded in July 2015 as a spinoff of Korean pharmaceutical company, HanAll BioPharma, ImmunoMet started as an oncology passion project by the founding CEO, Sung-Wuk Kim, whose personal experience with cancer drove him to action.  Under Kim's leadership, HanAll heavily invested in oncology discovery, and when the program became successful, HanAll spun the assets off into ImmunoMet. The company stayed in Korea for the first year, and then applied to JLABS in Houston at the Texas Medical Center to establish a U.S. presence. 

That's when a recruiter found Ben, showed him the technology, and he jumped at the chance to take the helm in the U.S. Although he permanently resides in Philadelphia, Ben commutes to Houston twice a month to spend time with his team, which is made up of six full time researchers who relocated to Houston from Seoul.

Ben shared that since coming to JLABS ImmunoMet has hit milestone after milestone. In the last few months, the company began its first Phase 1 clinical trial studies for its lead candidate IM156 at Yonsei Medical Center (South Korea), a Sister Center of MD Anderson Cancer Center; it appointed Ben as its new CEO; named two oncology heavyweights to its board of directors; and recently added a  chief medical officer and chief financial officer. 

"It all starts with good science, and then you get the snowball effect," Cowen told me in a conference room at JLABS @ TMC. "Our growth is contributed to the foundation we've built upon solid science, and then we've worked to establish the infrastructure to prepare us to become a Phase 2 company." 

Throughout our conversation, Ben shared that ImmunoMet is currently working on two programs. The lead candidate is IM156, which targets resistant tumors or tumors that have relapsed to standard therapies. IM156 showed promise in animal efficacy data in a number of solid tumors, including Glioblastoma (GBM), and is currently in phase 1 trials.

The second program is IM188, an immuno-oncology therapy that targets immune suppressor cells in a tumor micro environment. IM188 was developed in combination with an anti PD-1 (checkpoint inhibitor) and is showing an increased efficacy in animals with a greater number of responders. Historically in these cases, checkpoint inhibitors work well, but only in 25-30 percent of patients. With ImmunoMet's compound, the preclinical response rate is proving to be much higher.

"Our distinguishing factor is the utilization of cellular metabolism," Ben explained. "Most cancer cells use glycolysis, but some resistant tumors use an OXPHOS pathway for generating energy. We're attacking the energy generation of a cancer cell, and therefore it stops replication, so it starves the cancer so it can no longer grow."  

When asked if being at JLABS has contributed to its success, Ben believes the JLABS model is a perfect fit. "Being in an incubator environment has allowed a very small team of people to progress the science because they can just focus on the science. Our rapid progression occurred because we were able to step into a preexisting infrastructure. The research team could focus on the science, and I could focus on building out our leadership team to get us to this phase." 

Ben's passion and determination was obvious throughout our conversation, and when I asked him what advice he'd give to budding entrepreneurs he said:

"Perseverance is 90 percent of success in biotech. We are in an industry that's laden with failure, and the ability to keep going is what wins. You win in biotech and pharma by doing the smart experiments, killing drugs early that don't work, and pivoting to new opportunities.  Since you're likely to fail, the way to do it is to fail quickly, so you can get to the winning stuff. It's not the success ratio, it's the denominator."

If you ever find yourself in Houston, stop by JLABS @ TMC and ask for some time to chat with Ben. You won't regret it.

For more information about Immunomet, please visit www.immunomet.com.