Gerald Commissiong, President and CEO of California-based Amarantus BioSciences, Inc. (OTC: AMBS), talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his company’s groundbreaking work in the field of Parkinson’s disease.
More than one million Americans are afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, and each year about 60,000 new cases are diagnosed—not including those that go undetected.
Amarantus BioSciences, Inc. focuses on the discovery and development of therapeutic proteins with the potential to treat Parkinson’s disease and other human conditions. “We are very excited about our work and the potential of what it can bring,” says Gerald Commissiong. “When I look at the fact that just 15 years ago nobody thought there would be any new cancer treatments for a very long time, and today here we are with a variety of new life-saving cancer treatments because scientists pieced it together. This tells me that significant progress can be made in a relatively short time. We are in a very similar era with the brain in terms of a real increase in our understanding of how the brain can be treated. So, as this progress is made and people start to live longer, diseases of the brain are the next logical frontiers for medical science to overcome. I believe we will see a new wave of progress in this field and the work we are pioneering, along with some others in the field, is likely to have a really significant impact on the world.”
Opportunist: What is your background?
Gerald: I am Canadian by origin—born in Montreal—but both of my parents are from the Caribbean. I was raised in an English-speaking household and went to a French-speaking school, where I played hockey and football and got a college scholarship offer to Stanford. After I received my degree from Stanford in Management Science and Engineering, I played one year of professional football for the Calgary Stampeders in 2007.
Opportunist: How did you make the transition from professional football to science?
Gerald: My father is a neuroscientist, so I grew up in a science background. He previously ran two research divisions at the U.S. government. While at the NIH [National Institutes of Health] he developed technologies and believed he could discover a cure for Parkinson’s. He played an integral part in founding a technology company based in Vancouver, called Prescient NeuroPharma, and although he was successful on the science side business was not his strong suit. He and his colleagues tried to raise money, but changes in the economy and big pharma, as well as a lack of suitable delivery technologies all conspired to basically kill the program.
Opportunist: When did you join the company?
Gerald: Through my connections in the world of professional sports after the 2007 CFL season, I raised enough capital to acquire intellectual property rights. I started working on this project in 2007 while playing football, and officially founding the Company in 2008—then known as CNS Protein Therapeutics. Then I went back down to the Stanford area and hooked up with some gentlemen who introduced me to Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich and Rosati, one of the top technology law firms in San Francisco Bay area. They agreed to back the Company from a legal standpoint, to bolster the intellectual property portfolio we acquired and help us raise money. We raised additional funds from our initial investors in preparation for a fall 2008 launch. But then Lehman Brothers collapsed and the Dow fell and so forth, and we had to go and hide under a rock while the markets recovered. [Laughs] By that time I had married and my wife was expecting our first child, so I did another brief stint playing football in the fall of 2009—just after we brought in our current chairman to help us strategize, and we renamed the company Amarantus. We had a good degree of success throughout 2010, gaining support from a key private high net worth investor who was afflicted with Parkinson’s as well as funding from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Opportunist: What happened next?
Gerald: Unfortunately, another set of bad timing—just after we went public by reverse merger in May of 2011. The U.S. was up against the debt ceiling and, therefore, the markets took a flight from risk. We were considered a risky transaction. And the SEC changed the number of regulations for reserve merger companies, which killed things for a while. Despite these setbacks we produced some really good results on our Parkinson’s program.
Opportunist: What is Amarantus’ mission?
Gerald: Our main mission is to discover and develop therapeutic proteins that have the potential to address critically important biological pathways involved in the treatment of human diseases. Parkinson’s disease is our first battleground, and then we will look at traumatic brain injury (TBI) and Alzheimer’s disease because we think that our understanding of what these diseases are and what we can do with these diseases could have a significant impact. From my perspective that’s huge. This company has the potential to change the world.
Opportunist: Tell us about your lead product.
Gerald: MANF is our lead product. It’s a naturally occurring protein that the body’s cells need to properly function. This protein—or rather, what it does—is a completely new area of science. In fact, it looks like it may have applications pretty much everywhere in the body. Its primary function is to stop cell death, or apoptosis. It is also involved in helping metabolism and other bodily functions. It’s a very critical protein. In response to cellular stress, which is sometimes caused by stress or injury, the body produces more of this protein. We have been granted U.S. and European patents on this and our other patents are pending worldwide on application in the neurological field. As we get more data, we expect to apply it to other fields as well.
Opportunist: Concussions have recently been a hot topic in the news. Is there a correlation between brain injury and future disease?
Gerald: There is definitely a link between concussions and Parkinson’s. People who have had a concussion end up with brain plaques. You might recall that a couple of football players recently committed suicide—former NFL linebacker Junior Seau, for example—and I believe it’s something that could be slowed or stopped. The good thing is that the brain is very resilient and can withstand a lot of damage and still stay alive. The bad thing is that people can end up living with this damage for a very long time and, longer-term chronic problems are the hallmark of brain diseases. This will be the biggest challenge from a healthcare standpoint for society going forward.
Opportunist: Did anyone in your family have Parkinson’s?
Gerald: No. My father is just a very cerebral guy. He’s a pure scientist. In the end it all boils down to science. There is a certain set of cells in the brain that are much more important than people were giving them credit for. My father basically believed that those cells—called astrocytes—could change everything if we started to understand them. It’s all very scientific. There is no first-hand experience on the patient side, but he understands it because, especially as he has gotten older, some of the people he associates with are getting these diseases.
Opportunist: Have you done any clinical trials thus far?
Gerald: No, we haven’t done clinical trials yet. Bristol University has done some amazing work in delivering new proteins to the brain, and we are hopeful to begin our clinical work with that institution. One of the big failings was that the delivery technology was not there before to properly deliver proteins like MANF. Professor Steven Gill, who is a neurosurgeon at Bristol, is a pioneer in the field and he has done some amazing work with delivering competing molecules to appropriate regions in the brain. So, we are very hopeful that it will work the same for us.
Opportunist: We understand Amarantus is also working on a blood test for Parkinson’s.
Gerald: Yes, we have licensed some technology from a company called Power3 to diagnose Parkinson’s through a protein biomarker blood test. The results they produced are quite interesting, and we are looking to replicate these in a more scalable technological platform so the test can be commercialized.
Opportunist: Does your work offer potential help for Alzheimer’s patients as well?
Gerald: Quite possibly. We are going to be looking at that very closely in the near future. We now have data in Parkinson’s, stroke, traumatic brain injury, cardiovascular disease, and other areas where cell death is involved.
Opportunist: Has the company formed any strategic alliances?
Gerald: We are located at the headquarters of the Parkinson’s Institute in Sunnyvale, Calif., and we will be looking to work closely with them on some of our research—doing both clinical and basic research. They see about 6,000 patients per year, and they have been very supportive of our efforts. We are also getting more acceptance from the patient community, which is very exciting for us.
We recently completed a collaboration agreement with Banyan Biomarkers, the leader in developing in vitro diagnostic products to detect traumatic brain injury. They will evaluate the potential of our lead product, MANF, to become a disease-modifying agent for the treatment of traumatic brain injury.
Opportunist: Has the collaboration been successful?
Gerald: Based on the results, yes, we are excited about the potential of our MANF Program to generate new products to treat concussions and other forms of TBI. This is early data, of course, but we will be looking for innovative approaches to accelerate our TBI development program while using Banyan’s proprietary pane of markers as a key metric in our company’s drug-diagnostic strategy.
Opportunist: Why did you decide to take the company public?
Gerald: Private markets weren’t available to us for what we wanted to do at the time, as most venture investors were turning to social media and other technology investments, so we went public hoping the markets would be more favorable to our mission. The new JOBS act that was recently passed will have a positive impact on us because it affects small business. We are beginning to see more investor interest in what we are doing and it’s reflecting in the trading volume of our stock (OCTBB: AMBS).
Just last week, we presented the company to the investment community at the National Investment Bankers Association [NIBA] convention in New York City. We were able to engage with small-cap and micro-cap investors and make them aware of the value proposition that we represent. I believe our MANF Program, especially, is a potential blockbuster opportunity for investors.
Opportunist: What do you enjoy most about your work?
Gerald: On a day-to-day basis, I like not only what I do but also the results of what I do. I enjoy telling the story of our company and making people aware that there are potential solutions because it’s probably very difficult for people to keep going without the hope that companies like mine can give people. Giving people hope is the best part of what I do. Our work can have a major impact on humanity as a whole. This is the next era and evolution.
Opportunist: What milestones would you like to achieve for the second half of 2012 and beyond?
Gerald: We are excited. We think there are a lot of prospects for what we want to do. There is certainly a lot more interest, especially in this concussions angle, and with more people donating their brains to research centers and the like. We have also hooked up with former NFL players to fund our initial research in the area of concussions.
We must raise capital. We have business development transactions that we need to finalize. Our research is done and we need to get on the product development pathway and recruit some seasoned professionals in that realm. We also need to raise the profile of the company and reach a broader group of investors.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.