At the beginning of 2020, Sorrento Therapeutics Inc. was working on cancer drugs and opioid alternatives, while brushing away offers to buy the company.
Then COVID-19 hit. Sorrento was ready for the transition.
“It was easy in a way,” said Alexis Nahama, VP of corporate development. “We wouldn’t be this advanced in the COVID program if not working on a drug, RTX, for so many years. We were ready to go to Phase III trials. So we had GMP (manufacturing) ready. We had clinical supplies and preclinical safety packages. We had all the papers done for the pain program.
“We were looking at cardio and looking at lungs. We were preparing to go down that path, but we didn’t expect to have to accelerate to get to lungs before we did other indications, he said.
The COVID-19 target is very specific.
“All we have to do is apply our antibody expertise and our cell therapy expertise,” said Sorrento Therapeutics CEO Henry Ji.
That expertise can be seen in Sorrento Therapeutics COVID work.
Sorrento and SmartPharm Therapeutics Inc. (SmartPharm) recently announced a research and development collaboration to develop a next-generation, gene-encoded antibody vaccine for COVID-19.
“SmartPharm is actually a pretty exciting platform,” Ji said. Sorrento and SmartPharm expect to develop gene-encoded antibodies that can be administered as a prophylaxis against SARS-CoV-2 infection. “It is injected into the muscle so you can immediately express the antibody. “It is a prophylaxis for healthy people, health care workers or patients early in the infection, Ji said”
Another weapon in Sorrento’s arsenal is the COVI-CELL.
Mimics an Infected Cell
The COVI-CELL mimics an infected cell,” said Robert Allen, head of Oncolytic Immunotherapy at Sorrento Therapeutics Inc. “What it does is it takes major immune active protein from SARS-COV2 puts it into a cell, so the cell acts as a carrier for antigen. Essentially for protein, it looks like dying infected cell. We actually irradiate it before going in the patient. The mimic of dying cell elicits a strong immune response by design, and hopefully vaccinates individuals against subsequent challenge of the actual virus.”
The COVI-CELL is very unique, Ji said. “We don’t see anyone using human cells to vaccinate with viral proteins on the surface.”
Cellularity is another company with a Sorrento connection. Ji is on the board of the company.
“I am on the board. Cellularity came up with a placenta treatment for oncology, Ji said. “I pivoted the company to COVID-19 because of Natural Killer cells in treatment are useful for anti-viral. Now they (Cellularity) are working with me. We will supplement their manufacturing if needed. After a only a month, they will be testing on humans. That gives you a feeling how fast we are moving.”
Sorrento is also working on COVIDTRAP a protein designed to block the SARS-CoV-2 virus from binding and infecting respiratory epithelial cells, according to Sorrento. It also helps produce enzyme activity that will help reduce hypertension which is an issue with COVID-19 patients.
Ji refused to play favorites when asked if he favored any solution over the others. “I will take whatever best elicits an immune response.” Ji said.
He did speak highly of his company’s efforts.
“We have a multi-pronged strategy,” Ji said. We have DNA vaccination in the works, messenger RNA in the works and protein in the works, so you will see a lot of stuff coming and a very innovative way to do vaccines.”
When asked if there was something he needed to propel programs like COVI-Cell, Ji ticked off a list of things he has. His team has a dozen or so patents filed last month.
“The only thing we need is government support,” Ji said. The company has submitted applications for BARDA grants, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and is waiting for a response.
Asked about offers to buy the company earlier in the year, Ji was not interested.
“It was not worth the efforts to listen,” Ji said. “Look what we have been doing right now. You can imagine COVID-19 is doing $100 billion in the U.S. alone. A Harvard professor said it could be $50 billion to $350 billion. We are very big on diagnostic side. A therapy could be worth 10x that amount. That business alone is going to give us a quick cash flow.
“We also have an antibody cocktail that alone could give us billions of dollars, Ji said.