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How This Founder Developed Personalized Vaccines To Combat Pet Cancer

People

The future of immunotherapy in the veterinary space is changing in a great way!

Ashley Kalinauskas, the CEO and Founder of Torigen Pharmaceuticals can't help but think of how many pets they've saved since 2013. Both Kalinauskas and her team are ambitious and ready to continue to improve immunotherapy. Though it can be hard to think about, countless dogs and cats are diagnosed with cancer each year.


For pet owners, that can mean treatment options are limited because the location of veterinary oncologists, and it can cost thousands to get their pets back to their happy, healthy lives. Kalinauskas aims to save our furry friends from cancer and alongside her former professor, who has years of experience in personalized cancer treatments, she decided to make a business plan and bring this technology to market.

Now, five years later, Kalinauskas paints a picture of just how much she and her team at Torigen care about the pets they've positively impacted. On the wall of her office, based in Farmington, Connecticut, are a series of photos. Each photo represents the story of a pet that has been treated by Torigen's immunotherapy. “[Pet owners] send us every update; the veterinarians send us pictures and updates," she said. “That means the world to us that every single day we are coming in and we are making a difference." Seeing those pictures, and knowing their work has an impact keeps them going every day.
“That means the world to us, that every single day we are coming in we are making a difference,"

How did it begin?

Prior to the creation of Torigen, her former professor's dog developed cancer. It took time, patience and a lot of research to find a way to get rid of the tumor. Fortunately, he was able to treat his dog and was motivated to look into the veterinary market instead of the human one. “Being able to really take a portion of the patient's own tumor and create that into a series of vaccines really [allows] for the stimulation of the immune system," she explained. “When he analyzed his results against multiple tumor models like mammary carcinoma, ovarian, prostate, melanoma, he really saw the same results, that by utilizing an approach like this cancer vaccine, we're able to really drive down the overall rate of metastases, as well as reducing some of that tumor burden. The treatment is not chemotherapy or radiation. It's immunotherapy."[thb_image full_width="true" alignment="center" image="9774" img_size="full"]Torigen has been on a long road to success. From Kalinauskas' graduate thesis project at the University of Notre Dame to becoming a successful company that is getting recognized by leaders in the animal health field. “Building Torigen [was] a lot of hard work," she admitted. “I fell into this… I was doing research and then it became – 'hey, maybe I want to look into applying for the Notre Dame business plan competition." That was just what she did. After putting together a plan, and figuring out the company name, they entered the competition. She remembers it as a yearlong process. “At that point, we still didn't think we had a business," she said. “We thought we had a really great idea." And at that stage, she realized a lot went into building, running a company, and getting something out of the lab and into the market. “It wasn't until we placed second at the competition, and the next day we had a line of investors waiting to meet with us that my professor and I made the decision," she recalled. “We were like 'Alright! [It's] now or never! Are we doing this?' And we both said 'Let's go!'"

Pictured above, Torigen received an investment of $50,000. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Kalinauskas)

“It wasn't until we placed second at the competition, and the next day we had a line of investors waiting to meet with us that my professor and I made the decision," she recalled.

From that point on Kalinauskas was “the driver" behind Torigen. “I guess the founding and forming of Torigen was [built on] initiative, drive, and building a really strong team that has brought us to where we are," she shared. Vetivax, or as the CEO refers to as “V-VAX 001," is their product, which can be offered through veterinary clinics.

The experimental autologous cancer vaccine is regulated by the USDA Center for Veterinary Biologics. “We work with veterinarians and after a tumor gets surgically excised a portion can get sent into our laboratories," she explains. “Once here, we create the experimental therapeutic vaccine." Unlike chemotherapy, which Kalinauskas points out can range from $3,000 to $5,000 to start, the Vetivax treatment is about $1,500 through the veterinarian and veterinary clinic.“I guess the founding and forming of Torigen was [built on] initiative, drive, and building a really strong team that has brought us to where we are,"

Out of many recent success stories, there is one story she is constantly reminded of. There was a pet owner who frequently reached out to the Torigen team. “The pet had multiple recurrences of an oral squamous cell carcinoma, [which] was treated by a veterinary surgeon, and I think that we've just reached the date where this pet has exceeded the survival time that is expected," she recounted. In remembrance they had a celebration. “This was a really difficult tumor to treat and especially for what this pet had already gone through before coming to us," she continued. “That pet owner [was] just so happy that there [were] no more recurrences of this tumor after using our treatment."

It is that kind of dedication and care that also led Torigen to win the Animal Health Investment Forum Innovation Award. “That was awarded by the Kansas City Animal Investment Forum by industry leaders in the animal health space." She continued, “I think out of all the awards that we've gotten so far, this one is the one that means the most to us because it's really that stamp of approval by the industry that a company like ours, that's really focused on finding new cancer treatment options in the veterinary market is so needed in this space," she recalled happily. Along with her team, Kalinauskas has used her background in cancer research and cancer immunology, to change the way veterinarians use immunotherapy. “What's inspired me to do what I do is that you know, when you have a love for animals, and you're on the forefront of innovation, how can you make all of those pieces come together to drive and define how humans can be treated with cancer," she voiced.

In the years ahead, two of the main goals at Torigen are: building the team and expanding the company. “We are bringing on additional investment into the company, but what is making me so excited [is], I just finished writing the full outline of the beginning of a really cool grant proposal that we have with some amazing collaborators that I think will really allow us to push the forefront of what's being done on the human side of Immuno-Oncology, how that could be applied to the veterinary space, and how we can really allow it to move faster," Kalinauskas said. She hopes to bridge knowledge between the human market and veterinary market. “Animals, humans aside we both develop cancer [and] tumors," she noted. “Dog tumors are extremely similar to those of humans, so if we can successfully treat cancer in dogs with new modalities and new approaches, how can that research translate over to humans?"

On a personal level, Kalinauskas also hopes to inspire and mentor young women that intern at Torigen. “We have such a fabulous intern program, where interns work with us both in the summer and throughout the year," she said. “I'm excited about the potential for us, this May, to bring on three of those interns as full-time employees." Kalinauskas sees this as an opportunity to help undergrad students grow in their field before pursuing higher education. So far her interns have been women. “They're blowing their male competitors out the water because when there is an internship opportunity, they're hungry and they want it," she said. “If I had somebody that wanted it, regardless of their gender, of course, they would be at the top of my list, and so far it's only been girls." Kalinauskas believes that it not only gives them a strong background in science but also gets them involved in a small business, which allows them to become ingrained in what Torigen does.

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Politics

Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.


When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.