Taking advantage of light to treat skin cancer

The late Yehuda Mazur, from the Weizmann Institute of Science, who developed hypericin, based on the naturally occurring chemical compound.The Hebrew word Hy, chai, or hai is designated by the number 18 in gematria. However you spell it – the …

The late Yehuda Mazur, from the Weizmann Institute of Science, who developed hypericin, based on the naturally occurring chemical compound.The Hebrew word Hy, chai, or hai is designated by the number 18 in gematria. However you spell it – the word means life, alive, living or vivid – it’s an appropriate name for an Israeli-American drug company now reborn and working on a number of anti-cancer drugs, and one to alleviate psoriasis.

Based on an extract found in St. John’s Wort, Hy Biopharma is working to commercialize HBP-347, formulated after the naturally occurring chemical compound hypericin. The company, whose technology is based on the research of the late Israeli scientist Dr. Yehuda Mazur from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, has maintained a low profile in recent years. But that’s about to change.

Hy Biopharma is set for Phase III clinical studies, the last in a long chain of US-based drug tests, on two drugs — one to treat skin cancer, and one for treating psoriasis. Previously known under a different company name, Vimerex, the hypericin formulation was originally developed as an anti-HIV agent, but was unable to be commercialized due to its reactiveness with light.

Same potent compound, different application

American pharmacologist Dr. Alfonso Tobia, the current president of Hy Biopharma, came on board taking research patents from both the Weizmann and New York University to put the photosensitivity qualities, and active properties, of hypericin to good use.

“The company identified in the early 1990s that hypericin exhibited important [anti] HIV properties,” Tobia tells ISRAEL21c. “This was at a time when HIV was gaining tremendous world-coverage and was a major health concern throughout the world.” A lot of companies were working in this area to control the explosive spread of HIV, he adds. Vimerex was one of them.

“While the product did show activity, there was also dose-limiting photo activity,” says Tobia.

The bottom line was that drug developers were concerned. Vimerex then hired Tobia, a drug developer for major firms such as Johnson & Johnson, to revive the company.

Working with Alain Rook, a researcher at University Hospital-PA in Pennsylvania, Tobia discovered that the same photoactivity, which might harm HIV patients, could be used to kill skin lymphomas. Today, under the name Hy Biopharma, the company is working to bring an anti-skin cancer drug, and an anti-psoriatic drug to market, based on hypericin. The skin cancer drug could be available in as little as three years, says Tobia.

Putting light reactions to good use

One of the original researchers of the active compound, Dr. Gad Lavie the head of R&D and deputy director of the Blood Center, Sheba Medical Center in Israel, is currently on Hy Biopharma’s advisory board, making it a true Israeli-American cooperation. Upcoming clinical trials will occur in multiple locations throughout the US, including the Pennsylvania hospital.

An advantage to Hy Biopharma products is that they work – or are activated – when in combination with natural light. “[This] clearly has anti-cancer potential. And it has anti-cancer properties when combined with natural light,” says Tobia, who believes the hypericin-based formulation will have a clinical use in a number of autoimmune inflammatory disorders.

Headquartered in Jamison, PA, Hy Biopharma employs five people, and was founded in 2006. The company is also taking its Israeli-originating research to tackle another deadly disease – brain cancer. The company has found some interesting results in killing glioma cells in the brain, Tobia concludes.

About Karin Kloosterman

Karin Kloosterman lives in Jaffa, Israel. She is a journalist, writer and blogger who focuses on the environment and clean technology from Israel and the Middle East. Published in hundreds of newspapers around the world, Karin also writes for the Huffington Post and Green Prophet.