Piecing the puzzle together
Agent Z Project looks to unmask environmental triggers of M.S.
A West Michigan-based research effort hopes to raise a minimum of $50,000 to fund what could be the next step in finding a cure for multiple sclerosis.
Agent Z Project is a grassroots medical research initiative launched by a multidisciplinary team to cure autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis by identifying environmental triggers. It is doing so by using an alternative approach to standard drug discovery.
Co-founded by Dr. Michael Warmoth, a pediatrician who has a biochemistry degree and a passion for finding a solution for multiple sclerosis, the Agent Z Project aims to identify which environmental agents cause people to develop M.S. by leveraging a different model to implement and fund systematic experiments.
“I have always been interested in trying to solve a puzzle or cure a disease. I started to look at multiple sclerosis and Type I diabetes and noticed both diseases fit a certain model, and that model is you have a genetic tendency toward one of those diseases,” said Warmoth. “Then you have environmental exposure and you develop the disease. Most people are working on the genetics of what makes you prone to it, but there aren’t really many good ideas to what the environmental agents could be.”
The prevalence of multiple sclerosis in the United States is estimated at roughly 400,000 individuals, based on Census 2000 data and an effort conducted by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in 2002. It is estimated that the disease impacts approximately 2.5 million throughout the world.
Currently, Agent Z Project is based solely online and is leveraging the AngelList platform to secure between $50,000 and $100,000 in funding from angel investors to conduct a mouse model experiment: vaccinating mice against an environmental organism the team believes it has identified as a trigger for M.S.
The organism is a bacteria the team refers to as Agent Z and is in a related bacterial family to tuberculosis, according to Warmoth.
“The beauty of the Internet is you can do all of the medical research you want and you don’t need a big institution,” said Warmoth.
“I started looking at what is known about possible agents that could cause the two diseases. It turned out there was one particular bacteria that lives in the soil. It is a cousin of tuberculosis — roughly the same family, but it is a well-known bacteria that is in soil and different water supplies.”
After corresponding with a number of microbiologists at University of Wisconsin and Colorado State University, Warmoth decided to put together an experiment that would leverage collaborative partnerships with private laboratories to prove a vaccination against the bacteria would cause mice to be immune or prevent them from having recurrent M.S. episodes.
“Essentially, what we are saying is, if you are prone to M.S. and you get this bacteria, you will develop either M.S., or if you already have M.S. and are exposed to this in the environment, you are going to have a flare,” said Warmoth.
“There are many mouse models for M.S.; they exist for drug companies to test their drugs to see how effective those are, and so our plan is pretty simple.”
Using a vaccine supplied by Yung Fu Chang at Cornell University, the experiment will test the efficacy of immunizing mice that normally develop M.S., both mice that already have experienced one episode of paralysis and mice that haven’t develop M.S. prior to the vaccine.
Agent Z Project is collaborating with Proteos Inc., a contract research organization located in Kalamazoo, and Washington Biotech, based in Washington, D.C., to help with the next step of the project.
“We want to take the mice that haven’t developed it yet and immunize them to see if they develop the disease, and we also want to do it with those that have had one episode because that is going to better mimic the patient population,” said Warmoth. “The most common type of M.S. is where you have recurrent episodes.”
The team behind Agent Z Project launched the work late last year and began looking at various funding possibilities since the grassroots research doesn’t fall within the typical framework.
Team members include Chris Ostrowski, president and owner of Beyond the Ask; Crystal Brown, a physical therapist and owner of Happy Life Publishing; Dr. Eric Brown, an emergency room physician; Christy VanderHeide, a registered nurse; and Warmoth.
“We have been meeting since last fall and trying to launch this project,” said Warmoth. “It is a unique angle; it is a different way to approach this. A lot of funding for M.S. goes through National M.S. (Society), and they won’t fund a new idea that isn’t born in a post-graduate laboratory.”
With no overhead due to its presence being solely online, 100 percent of the funds raised through AngelList will be allocated for laboratory resources, according to the website. The team hopes to raise $50,000-$100,000 by the end of the year to move forward with the experiment.
Existing models to standard drug discovery focus on minimizing ongoing damage, and the cost can run an average of $75,000 per patient annually, according to Warmoth.
“The beauty of this plan is it doesn’t really require employees. It is essentially anyone who would want to take on the project or donate to the project,” said Warmoth. “It would be a way to do medical research in a new way where 100 percent of the funds are going to the experiment.
“Everyone is working at their usual job; this is just an idea that has taken hold and an idea where you can use other labs.”
Warmoth said the funding would allow for the mice to be vaccinated and patent protection if it was proven an unaffected mouse could be immunized, or if a mouse that has an M.S.-like condition was prevented from further episodes.
“You could have intellectual property protection around it, and our ultimate goal would be to essentially project this information and then move it on to large, big pharma that has the experience to take it from there,” said Warmoth. “Proteos in Kalamazoo was kind enough to keep the vaccine in DNA form from Cornell in the freezer until we receive funding.”
With its focus on evaluating the identified bacteria, Warmoth said the test looks at environmental triggers in a systematic fashion and could have a significant impact on treating other autoimmune diseases, including Type I diabetes, junior rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
“Appropriately funded, our goal would be to cross-match certain autoimmune diseases that have mouse models and vaccinate them against certain bacteria that have vaccines. We can run the experiment over and over and, any time we see a correlation, that would save hundreds of thousands of lives,” said Warmoth.
“That is an idea we are really excited about. It is just a matter of it doesn’t fit within the normal framework, so it is hard to get funded.”