Joseph Kim is a lot of things: entrepreneur, CEO, doctor of biochemical engineering, Wharton MBA, one of MIT’s Technology Review’s Top 100 Young Innovators of 2002, one of Details magazine’s 50 Most Influential Men of 2003 and 2006. But today, in the cluttered fifth-floor office of his mentor-turned-business partner, Penn professor David B. Weiner, he’s foremost a salesman, and an enthusiastic one at that. “Every time your eggs are valued golden,” he says, “what’s the value of the goose you own? It’s exponentially higher.” The goose is SynCon, or synthetic consensus, a method of creating vaccines — the golden eggs — from the DNA of the viruses they’re designed to fight. If all goes to plan, SynCon could well be medicine’s next holy grail: Flu season may become a thing of the past; Africa’s HIV and malaria plagues could be eradicated, too, as well as some cancers.
If you ask him, Weiner, a pioneer of DNA vaccines, will run down the science of plasmids and antigens and whatever Optimized Electroporation Delivery is until your eyes glaze over, but the takeaway is this: Science may finally get a handle on fast-mutating bugs like the flu and HIV, and, more importantly, treat and prevent illnesses with the same shot. Added bonus: The technology eliminates the dangers of injecting immune-compromised people with live viruses, as many vaccines require.
And that’s why this particular goose is so valuable. In fact, the flu vaccines alone could bring in $4 billion worldwide. Tack on DNA vaccines for HIV and cancer and — well, you see where this is going. In Weiner’s understatement, “This is a platform that has a lot of potential.”
Profits aside — though you can’t help but imagine Big Pharma execs wetting themselves over profitability forecasts — the public-health ramifications are huge: Diseases that every year collectively kill millions of people could, one day soon, be relegated to the dustbin of history. And it’s hardly a pipe dream: Science’s heavy-hitter financiers have bought in big. Last year alone, Kim’s company, Inovio Pharmaceuticals — whose advisory board Weiner chairs — garnered more than $30 million in public and private funding. The company ranks among the country’s top recipients of research grants from the National Institutes of Health, and has also received money from the Department of Defense and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Still, don’t toss that Theraflu just yet; even in a best-case scenario, these vaccines are a long way from FDA approval — the first ones are five to seven years from the market, Kim says. But preliminary tests have gone well, and vaccines for HIV and cervical cancer will enter what’s called Phase 2 — testing a vaccine’s efficacy with a few hundred human subjects — later this year.
This is revolutionary,” Kim effuses, letting himself break into a broad smile. And why shouldn’t he? Being a salesman is pretty easy if you think you’ve got a winning product.