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.
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.