In the past year, Ichor Medical Systems Inc. has taken treatment research that proved promising on animals and moved into clinical trials with humans in an attempt to find vaccines for some of mankind's most troubling diseases.
Cancer, HIV, hepatitis and others are all in Ichor's crosshairs. The company is attempting to perfect a treatment method where electrical fields are used to make vaccines more effective.
"Since I was a teenager I always had an engineering kind of mechanical/electrical bent to me, but I always wanted to combine it solving a medical problem," said Robert Bernard, Ichor's co-founder and chief executive officer.
A Louisiana native, Bernard said he's always been something of an entrepreneur. In 1992 he sold his company Bernard Foods to Nestle and came to San Diego to learn more about the life science sector.
He learned about the technique of electroporation, in which electrical fields are used to guide molecules into a cell, and saw the potential in what he came to call the TriGrid, a system that creates electroporation.
Ichor's goal is to create a treatment in which a person is injected with a vaccine, and then a doctor or nurse will use a TriGrid Deliver System to send mild electrical pulses to the injection site. The pulse will induce the cell to let the vaccine in. The vaccine will contain DNA that will essentially tell the cell what to look for if certain diseases -- like HIV or cancer -- should enter the body. This will stimulate the body's immune system should the person contract those diseases.
"Cells are naturally set up to be very selective about what they let into the cell and what they won't," Bernard explained. "We've got a compound DNA that just does not want to get across the cell membrane on its own and the cell's not interested in letting it into the cell on its own.
"So we basically use these electrical fields to destabilize the cell membrane and at the same time apply a charge across the charged DNA molecule and use the two factors in combination to get large amounts of DNA taken into the cell."
This treatment has been working in rats and rabbits for years now, but it wasn't until 2007 that Ichor finally got into treatment in people. Two different studies were conducted in New York this year. The vaccine for cancer works by giving it to people who already have the disease, spurring the patient's immune system to start fighting. Results are harder to tell for preventative vaccines like hepatitis and HIV. Bernard explained that the vaccine is given to people at a high risk to contract such diseases, who are then tracked to see if they get sick.
Ichor's biggest competition is another local company, Innovio, which tried using electroporation as a surgical instrument that helped get treatments into tumors. Ichor has always used the technique for DNA delivery, and Innovio has more recently turned to that as well. Not surprisingly, Bernard said Ichor's technology is better.
"We think there are many distinct differences between the two," he said. "We clearly feel ours is dramatically superior."