Inside the box, wrapped in Styrofoam and packed in dry ice, were vials of RNA Chahal had painstakingly produced at the Whitehead Institute. He was en route to the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, where his friend Omar Khan was waiting. The two were testing an idea for creating synthetic viruses using special self-replicating RNA. To start, the vials contained RNA that coded for a bioluminescent protein. Their plan: to inject nanopackets containing that RNA into the leg muscles of mice to see if they would glow.
Nearly two years have passed since that rainy-day street crossing and first experiment, but the memory remains vivid for a simple reason: “It worked,” says Khan. “So well that Jas said, ‘We can do big things with this. We can do vaccinations.’”
Khan and Chahal, now both Koch Institute postdocs in the lab of Professor Daniel G. Anderson, have since turned their idea—a collaboration done in their spare time—into a platform for the rapid development of injection-ready vaccines. By rapid, think 7 to 10 days. They have already collaborated with the US Army to develop and test an Ebola vaccine, and they’ve developed vaccines against influenza and a parasite related to malaria that causes toxoplasmosis. All of these vaccines were 100% effective in mice. Now they are pursuing applications in immunotherapy and prophylactic vaccines for cancer, in collaboration with David H. Koch Professor Tyler Jacks’s lab and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“Our goal,” says Chahal, “is to get the vaccines to people.”
So Chahal and Khan worked with the MIT Technology Licensing Office to patent their technology. They are founding, along with their professors, a company called Tiba Biotech with plans to move the vaccines they are developing for diseases such as Zika and Ebola towards clinical trials in humans.
“We came into this field as non-experts with a completely different take on things,” says Khan. “It’s fun to take this big step and grow with the technology and the company.”
Chahal and Khan may be non-experts in traditional vaccine development, but they are experts in their respective fields. Chahal, a virologist who came to MIT as a postdoc in the immunology lab of Hidde Ploegh, biology professor and Whitehead faculty member, has an eye for understanding viral proteins and a knack for synthesizing RNA instructions for building those proteins. “He’s got all these tricks and techniques,” says Khan. “It’s not trivial.”
And Khan’s training made him a perfect complement. He’d come to MIT to develop nanotechnology that would hijack a cell and coax it to grow new tissues. This expertise was just what Chahal needed for delivering his self-replicating RNA into cells—a first step toward having the cell safely express viral proteins that would, in turn, trigger an immune response.
Prior to meeting Khan, Chahal had tried a range of commercial products for delivering his RNA into cells. None worked. “I’d had my heart broken a couple of times,” says Chahal.
But those disappointments were an asset when a mutual friend introduced him to Khan. “Based on what hadn’t worked, I was able to deduce the modes of failure,” says Khan. “I used the clues to create design criteria and invent the missing enabling technology.”
Both Chahal and Khan want the public to benefit from their technology, so they decided to commercialize it. But neither had any idea how to start a company. So they joined MIT’s Innovation Corps and the Venture Mentoring Service. These services helped them develop a business plan and connected them with mentors. “These are freely available MIT programs designed to train people just like us to take the next step so we can be effective not only on the science but also in managing our company,” says Khan.
The long-term plan for Tiba, which means “to heal” in Swahili, is to deliver effective and inexpensive vaccines to the developing world. “We’re both sort of ethnically ambiguous and have ties to the developing world,” says Khan. “We wanted a word that would encompass all humanity and all healing. Tiba was a good fit.”