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"Speaking of Vitiligo..."

What is Villaris Therapeutics and how will it help my vitiligo?

Posted On: Friday, February 07, 2020 Posted By: John E. Harris Tags: Vitiligo, Vitiligo Research, Vitiligo Treatment

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I recently had the opportunity to start a new company entirely focused on developing a new treatment for vitiligo. We named the company Villaris Therapeutics, and the name was the concept of the board members, not me. I say that because it incorporates my last name, Harris, and I want it to be clear that it wasn’t my idea, although I am honored by it. Truth is, the long list of names I came up with for the company were either already taken, or weren’t that good, to be honest. So here we are, Villaris Therapeutics, which stands for VItiligo, IL-15, and HARrIS. Now that’s out of the way, I’ll tell you a little more about the process of getting funding for the company, the team we assembled to lead it, and our mission.

As I’ve said in other venues, the rationale for starting the company was based on some research that we published in the summer of 2018 in a journal called Science Translational Medicine. Incidentally, the funding for this research came primarily from the Dermatology Foundation (Stiefel Award funded through a generous donation from Charles and Daneen Stiefel), and for that I am grateful. In that publication we describe how we found autoimmune resident memory T cells in the spots of vitiligo, and how these cells bring vitiligo back as soon as any treatments are stopped. This is a real frustration for patients, and a reason why many come to see me in clinic. Now, we shouldn't be surprised that vitiligo comes back after stopping treatments, since that’s what happens in most diseases. But we wanted to know why, and specifically why the disease comes back in EXACTLY THE SAME LOCATION as it was before. So, we found that memory T cells form in the spots, and wake up after successful therapies are stopped, so they just reinitiate the disease again. We weren’t the only ones to find this, as 3 other research teams around the world reported it as well. You can read more about the discovery at: 

We next wanted to determine if there was a way to get rid of these cells, rather than just put them to sleep the way existing treatments do. We discovered that they have an “achilles heel” so-to-speak, in that they absolutely require a cytokine protein, IL-15, for their long-term survival in the skin. So, when we blocked IL-15 signaling by using an antibody against the IL-15 receptor in our mouse model of vitiligo, the vitiligo was reversed, and the autoimmune memory T cells disappeared from the affected skin. So, the results were long-lasting after just a short treatment, which was very different from any existing treatments for vitiligo, including the new JAK inhibitors. We were all very excited by this and hoped that someday we could use this knowledge to develop a better, durable treatment for patients with vitiligo.

As a physician-scientist with a lot of experience studying autoimmune diseases, I do a lot of consulting for a variety of companies looking to develop new treatments for autoimmunity in the skin, and even other organs as well. One day I was consulting for the venture firm, Medicxi, the biomedical offshoot of Index Ventures, about one of the treatment approaches they were considering for another disease. During the conversation, they asked about my work in vitiligo and I told them about autoimmune resident memory T cells, IL-15, and vitiligo. They thought it was a great idea, and we had many follow up conversations about it in the next few months. In fact, I was talking to lots of other venture firms as well, as there was a lot of interest and excitement about developing new treatments for vitiligo, and our potentially durable approach, in particular. 

Eventually Medicxi invited me to give a shark tank-style presentation about our idea to their Board of Directors in London, England. I hopped on a plane, flew to London, found the hotel where the meeting was held, showed up about 20 minutes early, and waited for my turn. When the time came, I nervously walked into the meeting room full of board members and was immediately greeted with a question about one of the pictures on my slide of segmental vitiligo. I don’t blame him, since it’s a cool picture – a white spot in the shape of a square on the abdomen of a patient. It stops right at the midline and does not cross it, really a beautiful pattern. Well, that broke the ice and the rest of the presentation was fun, with lots of questions and answers about vitiligo and our approach to target the IL-15 receptor to treat it. We have a number of reasons to believe that targeting the IL-15 receptor, rather than the cytokine itself, is a much better approach, but I’ll save that for another time. By the end, the excitement in the room was palpable, and I had hoped it was enough to get the funding that we would need to develop our treatment for vitiligo patients.

Long story short, we obtained $18M Series A funding and we haven’t looked back. I am the scientific founder of Villaris Therapeutics and consultant for the company. We hired Dr. Andrea Epperly (PhD), a talented woman with excellent experience in drug development from a variety of places, including the dermatology division of GlaxoSmithKlein (GSK). We established a board of directors, which includes Medicxi founder and partner, Michèle Ollier (MD); VP and Head of Business Development for GSK’s Global Pharmaceuticals Commercial Portfolio, Kristen Slaoui (PhD); and serial entrepreneur and CMO of a variety of successful medical device companies, Donald Gonzales (MD). We recruited a scientific advisory board that includes dermatologist and physician-scientist, Rachel Clark (MD, PhD), dermatologist and vitiligo expert, Amit Pandya (MD), and resident memory T cell expert and immunologist David Masopust (PhD). Finally, we have an outstanding consultant on therapeutic antibodies who completes the team, and I couldn’t be happier.

It turns out that we are a predominantly woman-run company, and I’m proud of that. I wish that I could say that I was intentional about this, but in truth we recruited the best of the best for the company, and they happened to be mostly women! I am excited about our direction and leadership and know that we have assembled a powerhouse team to create this new treatment for vitiligo, and it has outstanding potential. I wouldn’t change a thing about the process that led to Villaris, or the leadership, or our approach. I actually look forward to our board meetings and regular conference calls, and I’m optimistic that Villaris is going to improve the lives of individuals with vitiligo by providing them a long-lasting, durable treatment option. Our hope is to start first-in-human clinical trials in the next 2 years, and then accelerate the process as fast as possible to get an FDA-approved treatment into the hands of dermatologists to treat their vitiligo patients who want it. To read more, please see our company website at https://villaristherapeutics.com, and keep an eye out for more updates!