A vaccine for Alzheimer’s is on the verge of becoming a reality

n the autumn of 2010, Mei Mei Hu, a management consultant for McKinsey in New York, received an unexpected invitation from her mother, Chang Yi Wang, asking her to join her for Christmas in Shanghai.

Mei Mei always had a complicated relationship with her mother. “Chang Yi is very particular and exacting – which is part of her genius,” Mei Mei explains, sitting in a restaurant in Cold Spring Harbor, a former whaling community on Long Island’s North Shore. She’s tall and slim, with long dark hair pulled back in an unruly pony tail. She was born in Great Neck, a suburb of New York, in 1983. A few years later, her family moved to a large colonial house in Cold Spring Harbor. “I remember coming back from school with a test score of 98 per cent and all she said was – next time, kill those last two points,” she grins, exasperated. “So, much to her surprise, I avoided science in school. I spent the rest of my life trying not to work with my parents.” Instead, she studied economics at the University of Pennsylvania, where she met her husband, then trained to be a lawyer, and has spent most of her career as a management consultant.

Chang Yi, on the other hand, is something of a legend in the fields of immunology and biochemistry: she has two PhDs, developed tests for HIV and Hepatitis C, and conducted pioneering research into an HIV vaccine. She is also the co-founder of United Biomedical, a sprawling drug development company with offices and labs in the US, Taiwan and mainland China. Mei Mei hadn’t really talked to her mother about United Biomedical for some time, and she was keen to remain ignorant about the company’s affairs. “Ever since I’ve been small my parents have worked together with very little boundary between personal life and work life,” she says. “If they’re stressed at work, you know about it. It’s one of the reasons I always promised I would never work with my mother.”

Over that Christmas in 2010, however, Mei Mei gradually realised, during long conversations with her mother at the dinner table, that the company was facing serious legal issues. “I just listened and talked to her and discovered there were shareholder disputes and legal actions that were taking up her time and money,” she explains. “If they went badly, the company would be in trouble.”

Mei Mei began poring over the company’s documents and what she found amazed her. United Biomedical was a company with only a few hundred employees and yet it was involved in animal and human healthcare: making generic drugs, monoclonal antibodies, blood tests for HIV and vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease. Chang Yi was trying to do everything.

To Mei Mei, it was clear this wide range of operations wasn’t sustainable. United Biomedical had to be restructured. “Perhaps it was my legal background combined with consulting experience but sometimes it just takes different ways of looking at something to solve it, so I decided to give it a shot,” she shrugs.

She drew up a large organogram on a whiteboard – separating out the generic drugs, animal healthcare and monoclonal antibodies businesses to be spun off into third-party joint ventures. On the diagram she made up names for each offshoot, just for illustration: United Biopharma, UBI Asia, and United Neuroscience. “I was explaining to my mother how we’re going to re-organise things, and just put in placeholder names until we thought up proper names,” she recalls. But Chang Yi loved United Neuroscience, and “just kept saying it. After that, we couldn’t name it anything else.”

A few days before she was due to return to the US, Mei Mei offered to stay for six months to deal with legal issues and help find joint venture shareholders. She took a sabbatical from McKinsey, and soon realised her future was with her mother’s company. “When you grow up and you see your parents work their butts off to try to do good and now they’re about to maybe get screwed, you want to defend them,” she shrugs. She partnered off non-core assets, spun out some departments, and focused on the part of the business that had the most potential. “Chang Yi thinks all of her products are great, and they are, but it didn’t take a genius to see that her vaccine business had the most promise,” Mei Mei smiles.

The vaccine research involved a new field in immunology called endobody vaccines. Most vaccines prepare our body’s immune system to fight off so-called exogenous disease, such as measles or flu, caused by bacteria or viruses entering our blood. Endobody vaccines, on the other hand, prime our immune system to deal with malfunctioning internal parts of the body that it would otherwise ignore.

Endobody vaccines are very rare, with only four approved for the market, two for cancer and two for animal healthcare – one of which was developed by Chang Yi in 2003. This particular drug can completely block the production of testosterone in the body and is currently used as a method of pig castration. “It’s like a teenager’s worst nightmare,” Mei Mei says with a dry smile. “Most men find their partner’s parents intimidating. My mother literally developed a drug that can cause men’s testicles to shrivel up and disappear.”

United Biomedical had other endobody vaccine candidates in development, the most interesting a vaccine for Alzheimer’s. This vaccine had already been successfully tested on small mammals and monkeys (baboons and macaques). Mei Mei wasn’t versed in the intricacies of the biochemistry so decided to get an outside opinion, approaching prominent vaccine researchers. They were blown away by her mother’s work. One investor suggested that she should search for other endobody vaccines that worked in the same way. Mei Mei couldn’t find any. Her mother had created something unique.

Upon this realisation, Mei Mei urged her mother to focus all her efforts on the Alzheimer’s vaccine through the spinoff company United Neuroscience. This was the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to change the lives of millions. Chang Yi reflected for a few days before agreeing. She asked her daughter to be the CEO of the new company. She would return to the lab and finish the work she had started, she told her daughter. She was going to find a defence against Alzheimer’s disease.

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