“Women should be more confident!”
Dr. Hella Kohlhof, CSO of Immunic AG, talking about career, children and women in biotech
Immunic AG is a young biotech company and a management buy-out from 4SC AG. With an investment volume of USD 22 million in the series A the company develops small molecule drugs for chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Immunic’s main focus is on inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, and also psoriasis. As CSO of Immunic, Dr. Kohlhof is responsible for the company’s research activities and strategy. She is convinced that Immunic is going to develop outstanding therapeutic products that will sustainably improve the therapeutic options for chronic inflammatory diseases. A Phase 2b clinical study will start at the end of 2017. Dr. Kohlhof expects an exit based on clinical proof-of-concept data in three to four years, e.g. sale of the company. Susanne Simon and Rainer Rutz interviewed her for “IZB in Dialogue”.
Dr. Kohlhof: Immunic AG was founded in April 2016 as a management buy-out of 4SC AG with the aim to bring targeted pharmaceutical research projects to clinical proof-of-concept. We focus on orally available small molecules for autoimmune and chronic inflammatory diseases. The strategy is to inhibit inappropriate and misdirected excess reaction of the immune system. We are developing two medicinal candidates: the first substance, IMU-838, is intended to be used against particularly severe forms of inflammatory bowel diseases, namely ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s disease. Here, we are developing in a niche between cortisone and antibody therapy. The second product, IMU-366 targets the protein RORgT and addresses the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis. Regarding the interesting mechanism of action, however, this product has the potential to be successful in further autoimmune diseases.
Dr. Kohlhof: Our aim is to further develop our main products IMU-838 and IMU-366 for the treatment of autoimmune diseases with high medical need. The phase 2b clinical trial with IMU-838 will start at the end of the year. With respect to IMU-366 we are going to start the phase 1 study mid-2018. Our plan is to enable an investor exit within the next 3 to 4 years.im Dialog: What sales success do you expect from IMU-838?
Dr. Kohlhof: That is difficult to predict. If you develop drug candidates it can be “all or nothing”. We might fail, or we gain 700 million EUR.
© Immunic AG
“Just do it! And don’t let yourself be intimidated by anyone.”
Dr. Hella Kohlhof
CSO, Immunic AG
im Dialog: What will you do when the company is sold? Currently, you have a temporary contract?
Dr. Kohlhof: Our management team comprises highly experienced, highly competent and exceptionally motivated scientists. We will simply set up a new company. I’m pretty confident that there is no lack of good ideas.
im Dialog: How do you identify a specific drug candidate?
Dr. Kohlhof: First of all, basic research is required. A disease is – simply speaking – triggered by a gene, a protein or an enzyme. Then, research investigates which chemical substance is able to block the specific enzyme (gene or protein) and hopefully cure the disease. There are different approaches. Usually, big pharma screens millions of substances with robotic systems. 4SC uses a different approach: in a computer-based approach it screens several million small molecules for each target using a proprietary software. The 300 most promising candidates resulting from that screen are selected for further testing in the lab. These structures are then optimized by medicinal chemists and tested by biologists and pharmacologists until the best substance can be developed as a drug for humans.
im Dialog: Who are your main investors?
Dr. Kohlhof: We have an international consortium of investors headed by our Dutch lead investor LSP and the Swiss co-lead-investor LifeCarePartners. Further important investors are Bayern Kapital, HTGF and IBG/bmp. As a result of the collaboration with the Saxony-Anhalt-based IBG, we founded Immunic Research GmbH in Halle, where we operate Immunic Research in tight cooperation with the local Fraunhofer Institute IZI.
im Dialog: You are now Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) of Immunic AG. Can you tell us something about your professional career?
Dr. Kohlhof: After completing my training as a medical technician assistant in Aachen, I studied biology in Aachen and Munich. I spent one semester abroad in Gothenborg, Sweden. I completed my studies with my PhD at the LMU in Munich. During my PhD degree as well as my postdoc time at the “Helmholtz Zentrum München” I focused on immunology, oncology and molecular biology. Mid-2008, I took over laboratory management for the oncology lab at 4SC AG. From 2011 onwards I was in charge of the clinical project 4SC-202, and from beginning of 2015 I was responsible for the clinical development pipeline. My management activities for Immunic AG started in January 2017.
“Our aim is to further develop our main products IMU-838 and IMU-366 for the treatment of autoimmune diseases with high medical need.”
Dr. Hella Kohlhof
CSO, Immunic AG
im Dialog: Was it always your intention to become a scientist?
Dr. Kohlhof: As a child I wanted to be a technician, a scientist in the field of oncology, an actress or a goldsmith. I achieved my first and second wish. Acting was my spare-time job for many years, and I will reserve the goldsmith for my next life.
im Dialog: You are a mother and research scientist. How could you combine children and career?
Dr. Kohlhof: I had my children at the beginning and end of my PhD degree. I simply did not want to wait any longer. I had my husband’s full support and we had a nanny. When I returned to my job after the second maternity leave, I started a part time postdoc position in my research group at the “Helmholtz Zentrum”. That was a big help for my “comeback” after my PhD. And I learned that it is always easier to make the transition into an industry job if you are already employed. Of course, I had a tough time. But, if you organize yourself well, if you really want something, and if you do not take yourself too seriously, everything is possible. Additionally, a solid network of like-minded friends is important. In my case, it worked wonderfully.
im Dialog: How do you assess the position of women in the biotech industry today and what are your wishes for the future?
Dr. Kohlhof: Women are quite successful in our industry. Nevertheless, many women have less self-esteem than men. Maybe, this is why they are not represented at all higher hierarchy levels in companies. I wish that women in higher positions would be taken for granted.
im Dialog: What is your advice for women who want to make a career in such a job?
Dr. Kohlhof: Just do it! And don’t let yourself be intimidated by anyone.