One of the greatest threats the United States faces is the detonation of a dirty bomb that spews radiation for miles and makes millions of people deathly ill. And yet this is the one disaster the country is least prepared to handle. An emergency preparedness guide issued by the city of New York says, "In the unlikely event of radiation exposure, the City may distribute KI [potassium iodide]."
It's not much of a plan, especially considering that potassium iodide only protects the body from developing thyroid cancer after exposure to radioactive iodine. Other types of high-level radiation exposure cause much more immediate damage. (See "Blast to Bone Marrow") The US military—on the front lines of such an attack—had been searching for a compound that will protect bone marrow against radiation damage for 50 years. Following 9/11, it stepped up efforts and finally found a solution.
Richard Hollis, founder and CEO of Hollis-Eden, thinks immunology is key to creating a world without disease.
While sifting through the mass of immunology literature produced by university and pharma researchers, the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (AFRRI) came across an immune-regulating hormone that looked interesting. The institute created a batch of the compound and began testing it in animals. The results were quite dramatic: Nearly all the mice that had been given the hormone, then exposed to lethal does of radiation, survived.
AFRRI soon learned that the patent for the compound, HE2100, was held by the San Diego company Hollis-Eden, which had recently turned its focus to bioterrorism. The two organizations entered into a collaborative agreement and fast-tracked the development of Neumune, the eventual brand name for compound HE2100, with the goal of producing an FDA approved drug that the US government could stockpile for treating acute radiation sickness (ARS).
Christopher Reading, PhD, a cellular immunologist, is Hollis-Eden's executive vice president of scientific development and led the initial work on the DHEA compounds.
The joint effort is a serendipitous by-product of 9/11. Before then, Hollis-Eden was just another small pharma company, engaged in a long struggle to find the right "first market" for its exciting immune-regulating technology.
In 1994, when Richard Hollis turned 40—after a long career in pharma sales and marketing—his present to himself was launching his own company. "When I left the industry, I had the financial capacity to go out and license some technology and avoid venture capital," he says. "So with a little pocket of gold—not much, just a little bit—I went searching for technology to build a company on. The important thing was to have a good discretionary eye for technology that can really manifest into real medical products."
Hollis focused his search on immunology, an area he saw as the key to treating global infectious diseases. "I found a class of hormones that had some very interesting properties," he says. "The literature was four to five decades old, and I found it very intriguing that Big Pharma had not picked up these hormones." During the 60s and 70s, those companies developed corticosteroid hormones and sex hormones, leaving the immune-regulating group alone. But Hollis thought this group of steroid hormones—all active metabolites of the dietary supplement dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)—was "ripe for opportunity."
Blast to Bone Marrow