Maryland Biotech Company Partners With Hadassah To Fight ‘Superbugs’

Dr. Ran Nir-Paz standing outside Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center. Photo Courtesy of Hadassah.

A partnership between the American Jewish women’s organization Hadassah and Adaptive Phage Therapeutics, a Jewish-owned, Gaithersburg-based biotech company, has led to advancements in the fight against deadly bacteria with a super resistance to antibiotics using bacteria-attacking viruses known as phages, and it’s a partnership that has historical Jewish ties.

APT has been collaborating with the Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel for six years, largely with Israeli infectious disease expert Dr. Ran Nir-Paz, who published the largest-ever study using phages to kill a specific strain of super resistant bacteria in 2023.

These “superbugs” kill up to 5 million people a year according to the World Health Organization and are a major issue that the medical community is contending with as these strains of bacteria continue to evolve and grow further resistances.

“There’s a huge demand from our medical community for specific patients to get some help. And that’s one of our major efforts on the clinical side – to try to take a bacteria, to try to see if we can match a phage, and then provide these phages. Luckily, we have this cooperation with APT that enables us to get phages from them,” Nir-Paz said.

Nir-Paz said that the idea to use phages more widely in treatment of these bacterium presented its strongest case around six years ago when he had a particularly difficult case that looked like it would result in a patient facing an amputation until they used a phage.

He said that the use of phages in combating bacteria had been well known for almost a century, but they hadn’t been deemed significantly useful until more recently, particularly over the past couple of decades.

Nir-Paz and his team had done some reading that he said had some hype around phages and called APT, who supplied them with two phages that ended up saving the patient’s limb and had him out of the hospital in days.

“That’s how we came to know Adaptive Phage Therapeutics … After that, we got together and we practically collaborated more, with many more cases,” Nir-Paz said.

APT, the Hadassah Medical Organization and Hebrew University now have a contract to make and sell phages to critically ill patients and medical institutions through Nir-Paz’s Israeli Phage Therapy Center.

This partnership and the creation of APT is the culmination of a multigenerational tie between the co-founder of APT, Greg Merril, Hadassah and phages that brings a deeply Jewish element to the world of biotech.

The connection begins with Merril’s grandparents, the Weistocks, who were strong supporters of Hadassah from the Maryland area.

They were such impactful supporters that Hadassah presented a plaque to Merril’s grandfather for donating money in support of the medical center. Merril recently found the plaque while cleaning out his late grandparents’ old house.

“What’s wonderful about Hadassah is I would say we go from generation to generation … The Weistocks have been donors for decades from Maryland …. It started with their support at Hadassah, and then it moved on to a collaboration between their grandson, Greg Merril, and Dr. Nir-Paz,” Carol Ann Schwartz, Hadassah’s national president, said.

Then you have Merril’s father, who was an emeritus scientist from the National Health Institute who studied phages in depth in the 1960s.

“As he was doing this research, years went by, and there was an outbreak of drug-resistant infection happening at the NIH campus. And I think maybe 13 or so patients died at on the NIH campus because of a bacterial infection that was not responding to antibiotics, and my father’s lab was in that building. So, my father was thinking, why aren’t we using phage to treat these patients,” Merril said.

Merril’s father became highly involved in the field of phages and his ideas led to the government hiring one of his Ph.D. students to create and run a “phage bank” that they could use for soldiers in Iraq who were contracting these superbugs.

Merril’s father was eventually asked to work on a project for the Department of Defense to make these phages accessible to everyone commercially, but he referred them to Merril instead, who was a “serial entrepreneur in life sciences.”

Merril then worked out a proposal with the DOD to assume control of the phage bank and accomplish the mission of furthering progress in creating applications for them, and APT was born.

Now, the partnership between Haddasah and APT is providing a great way for the phages to be tested and made available as a last resort to people facing complications from superbug infections.

“For those patients who otherwise had no options because antibiotics don’t work, and these patients are going to die, or they have to have a limb amputated, it has meant that those patients are able to live, they’re able to live with limbs that they otherwise would have lost. So that’s obviously very meaningful,” Merril said.

The work they’ve done has also allowed them to publish several papers that highlight the potential impact of phages as they continue to study all the potential uses in fighting these deadly bacteria.

“There’s plenty of work to do. Those [published papers] are just a bunch of cases summarized together. It’s not the appropriate way to define if a medical treatment is really making a difference. But it gives promise. It’s like the first foundation to define how clinical trials should continue,” Nir-Paz said.

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