Though inflammation is normally a healthy part of the body’s response to injury or infection, some people experience a dysfunctional immune response. The resulting chronic inflammation can damage the body and lead to further disease. Current therapies for chronic inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and ankylosing spondylitis often work by suppressing the immune system, and treat symptoms rather than addressing the root causes of the disease. However, only 20-30% of patients benefit from these therapies long term. So, what if – instead of working against the immune system – we figured out how to restore its balance and function?
Promakhos Therapeutics aims to do just this. Founded in the spring of 2021, this Allston-based biotech startup is developing curative therapies that restore the function of the innate immune system, allowing the body to control inflammation and heal.
We spoke with Promakhos Therapeutics co-founder and CEO, Katerina Chatzi, about what drove her to start Promakhos and what keeps her motivated!
Harvard Innovation Labs: What inspired you to start this venture? How did you come to do this work?
Katerina Chatzi: Before we started this venture, I was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, and had been working in different aspects of bacterial biology and biochemistry for more than 10 years. I noticed that over the last few years, there has been an explosion of information about how bacteria are crucial for different aspects of human health. Bacteria communicate with our bodies through molecules they release. These molecules are evolutionarily perfected to – among other things – control our immune system. However, they have not been explored in a systematic way. We think bacteria are a rich source of new drugs. By isolating and characterizing these bacterial molecules, we aim to discover new treatments for inflammatory diseases.
I started discussing this idea with Jasper Neggers, who later became my co-founder. He was a Damon Runyon post-doctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Jasper is an expert in human disease, genetic engineering of human cell lines, validation of drug mechanisms, and identification of molecular targets; an ideal and complementary skillset to my own. Jasper was very excited with the idea and helped refine it. We then outlined a strategy about how we can develop new therapies.
To further explore our ideas, we joined the Harvard Innovation Labs Venture Program for students. In the spring of 2021, we pulled the trigger and started Promakhos Therapeutics. In fact, Jasper had just received a $1M award from the National Institutes of Health to become an assistant professor and he ended up giving his award back. During the first months of the company’s life, we were accepted to Y Combinator in the summer of 2021, received the Allston Venture Fund pre-seed award, and participated in the MassBio MassCONNECT 2021 program. We further refined our business over the summer and raised our seed round by October. Now we’re building the company and are excited to be part of the Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab!
HIL: What keeps you motivated as you develop your venture?
Chatzi: We’re going after debilitating diseases without cures. Patients experience a lot of distress. There’s nothing more motivating than waking up in the morning and knowing that what you’re doing today might, in a couple of years, be able to help these patients and save them from a life of disability and chronic pain. This is enormously motivating.
HIL: What’s next for your venture? What are some next steps for you, and how do you see your venture growing?
Chatzi: We’re currently developing a drug for Crohn’s disease, and we anticipate that in 1.5 years we will be ready to initiate the safety studies that are necessary before we can start clinical trials and test our drug in humans. At the same time, we’re developing our technology platform to discover and nominate new molecules to treat chronic inflammation. In the next couple of years, we aim to nominate additional drug candidates for diseases such as ankylosing spondylitis or multiple sclerosis.
HIL: Can you tell me about your involvement at the Life Lab? What has it been like to be a part of this community?
Chatzi: It’s great to be part of the Life Lab community. The Life Lab has been of tremendous value for our company. Initially we started working part-time at a student bench before we were able to raise any significant capital for our company. This helped us to generate data and make our story stronger. It set us up for success when, five months later, we started talking to investors. The Life Lab is very well equipped, modern, and in tip-top shape. Importantly, the staff that run it are extremely helpful and friendly. It really is a collaborative place that makes you feel happy when you work there.
HIL: Is there anything else you would like to speak to about your experience?
Chatzi: A big challenge as an emerging therapeutics startup is the need to secure financing. The high upfront costs as well as the limited ways to generate revenue can be especially prohibitive. Managing and establishing a plan to tackle this challenge is an intimidating task and often requires an integrated approach incorporating unique facets of the company. The Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab and The Harvard Innovation Labs have helped us tackle these problems.
First, the Life Lab provides an excellent and well-managed laboratory space with access to state-of-the art shared equipment, limiting the high upfront costs a therapeutics company typically faces when starting laboratory operations. In addition, the Harvard Innovation Labs has helped us develop our ideas and allowed us to significantly expand our network. The pre-seed award from the Allston Venture Fund was also very helpful to get the company off the ground. Finally, both my co-founder and I founded this company straight out of academia. When it comes to developing treatments for serious or deadly diseases, it is believed that only established veterans can create solutions. As we continue building our company, we wish to encourage everyone and show that they too can embark on a journey to build a biotech company and provide a major contribution to human health.