Ilya Rachman (’12) and Sean Senn (’12) met while earning their MBAs at UCLA Anderson in the Executive MBA program. In 2012, they joined forces to launch West L.A.-based Immix Biopharma (along with co-founder Vladimir Torchilin). Their motivation to devise a more efficient way to develop medicines for patients with advanced cancer was personal: Senn’s father died from cancer, while cancer took the lives of several people close to Rachman.
After the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Rachman and Senn shifted their focus to help combat the latest scourge. Immix has teamed with Westlake Village-based MannKind to develop possible treatment options. Immix also hopes to craft a prevention strategy to reduce reinfection risk once the economy begins to reopen.
In separate interviews, Rachman, a physician and scientist, and Senn, an attorney, shared their thoughts on their current work and their company.
Q: First off, how are you doing?
Ilya Rachman: The family and myself are doing well. We are complying with all the sound advice disseminated by the public health officials.
Sean Senn: We’re good. There was a little bit of a pause, and now we’re refocusing on what we’re doing.
Q: You met while attending UCLA Anderson. Why did you decide to form Immix?
IR: This was a confluence of two people coming together from extremely diverse backgrounds. I came to this from a clinical and scientific background, knowing that patients are sorely missing out on vast numbers of new technologies that could be unleashed if a more efficient system for drug development existed. Sean came to Anderson with a background in molecular biology, but he was working as a biotech patent lawyer, having seen how deals are done and what goes into IP strategy.
SS: Immix really was a creation of Anderson. Ilya and I would talk during breaks and during lunch, just throwing out different ideas. We reached out to the first CRO [contract research organization] online from the classroom at Anderson. That’s where we were designing the experiments, the very first proof of concept.
IR: I’d also like to add that Sean and I were greatly enabled by the kindness and generosity of one of our very own Anderson professors, Jason Hsu (Ph.D. ’04).
Q: Before the pandemic, what was the focus at Immix?
IR: We’ve developed a molecule combining a naturally derived anti-inflammatory substance with an antibiotic chemotherapy to target cancer cells and to induce cancer cell death, with minimal to no side effects in healthy cells. The idea being, cancer becomes a chronic and manageable disease, akin to HIV or diabetes.
SS: We are currently in Phase Ib of human trials for Stage IV metastatic cancer patients across all solid tumors at two different sites in the U.S. and in Australia.
Q: Did you have to lay off employees or make any other arrangements because of the pandemic?
IR: We are fortunate that it has not affected us, maybe because of the unfortunate nature of the disease conditions that we are treating. Because our studies have to do with Stage IV cancer, the oncologists at the trial sites that we are collaborating with have to continue to provide care. And so our studies have not been as impacted as other, less acute medical conditions.
Q: How are you pivoting to deal with COVID-19?
IR: Initially, we were overwhelmed just like everyone else. As I looked into the pathophysiology of this virus, what became quite obvious is that the human body responds to this particular virus in ways that are not dissimilar to what we see in disseminated cancer. So that’s why we reached out to MannKind and other pharma companies in an attempt to develop an inhaled therapeutic that would block the progression of the inflammatory properties of the virus.
SS: MannKind has ready-made and promising delivery systems (inhalers), and we have a compound that can inhibit inflammation. When we negotiated our deal about collaboration, the focus was less about our ability to make money or about the IP rights. It was really about, how fast can we get this product out there and what can we do to get it out there? It seemed like a natural fit for us to work together.
IR: We envision this as a portfolio of three products: as a nasal spray that could prevent infection and reduce the chances of someone’s getting infected post-exposure. The inhaler would be the second component of this pipeline. That would be for people who have more serious symptoms — coughing and wheezing — with the idea that this would prevent them from needing to go to the hospital. The third compound is an intravenous drug to help critically ill patients on ventilators.
Q: What are the main challenges that Immix faces in developing treatments for COVID-19?
SS: We just don’t know everything about this virus. We’re still learning about it. It’s very hard to speculate and say this might work or this won’t work until we get further along in the testing phase. We think it will. We’re taking our best shot. But any time you put something in the human body, there’s a lot that can happen that is unpredictable.
IR: The main challenge is that the biomedical developmental system is badly broken. The system is severely biased toward the larger players in the space, with the result being that smaller companies struggle to bring their products to market. The challenge is not scientific. The challenge is in the model of the development.
Q: What else is Immix doing about COVID-19?
IR: I’ve reached out to the Mayor of L.A.’s office to try and set up a pilot study using FDA-approved medication that has strong potential to reduce infectivity. We want to conduct a registry study and get data that could help guide the world in reopening the economy safely and rationally.
Q: How do you like your chances?
IR: We don’t waste time getting frustrated. We’re trying to come up with a plan to benefit humanity, even if it actively tries to resist our efforts to help it.