Luis M. Branco
By Henry Mortimer, Editor-at-Large
By now you’ve probably heard about the Ebola and Zika viruses and their potential for triggering deadly and costly outbreaks in the US and around the world. But what do you know about MERS, Nipah, and Lassa? Likely not enough, according to Luis Branco, PhD, cofounder of Zalgen Labs.
These are what Dr. Branco and other infectious disease experts call “neglected” viruses — in other words, a medical threat that the scientific community may know about but that doesn’t get the same attention (ie, money and resources) as other diseases, and are just as deadly and may be more costly.
The Lassa virus, for example, causes a hemorrhagic fever that presents with the same symptoms as Ebola and has been recognized as having pandemic potential — at least 5,000 deaths are reported annually. However, little has been done to discover and produce counter-measures.
Solving that dilemma is what inspired Dr. Branco, who has extensive expertise in the development of licensed antibody therapeutics, such as MedImmune’s Synagis (Palivizumab), to form the Germantown, Md.-based biotechnology firm in 2011: to go after what he terms a “very nasty virus that was out there, pretty much unknown to the community at large, but with great potential to be incredibly disruptive.”
Zalgen’s core competency, in fact, is developing effective biological molecules for diagnosing, preventing, and treating underrepresented human infectious diseases worldwide. The company recently announced the results of a study showing its human monoclonal antibodies can be an effective and safe therapeutic candidate for Lassa hemorrhagic fever. The study, published in the journal “Antiviral Research” was conducted through a consortium of academic, institutional, and biotechnology entities, led by the lab’s other cofounder, Robert F. Garry, PhD.
Additionally, this team recently published the first structure of the Lassa virus glycoprotein in its native conformation, a study led by Erica O. Saphire, a distinguished crystallographer from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI). This study was published the June 2 issue of "Science" and will form the basis of the consortium’s newest vaccine candidate for Lassa fever.
But developing effective biotech tools to fight human diseases is only part of the battle.
“If there’s one thing we need it is awareness,” says Dr. Branco. “The world is changing in such a way that the transmission of these diseases will become an issue, and I think the Ebola outbreak taught us that.”
Raising the company’s profile and improving awareness of its mission is one of the reasons Dr. Branco says he joined the Maryland Tech Council.
“It’s a great organization to be associated with, from many standpoints,” he says. “Not just helping to procure funding but also in establishing collaboration and bringing people together from all facets of the high-tech industry. You just never know by meeting somebody what could come of it, even if they are not in your field. They are pretty instrumental in helping to bring entrepreneurs together to accomplish their goals.”
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