How This Founder Developed Personalized Vaccines To Combat Pet Cancer

How This Founder Developed Personalized Vaccines

To Combat Pet Cancer

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,”

This is Ashley Kalinauskas, CEO and Founder of Torigen Pharmaceuticals. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Kalinauskas)

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.”

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.

Chyna Davis

Hi! SWAAY's Editorial Writer, Chyna, is a passionate journalist and sociologist. She has made NYC her home for four years and is passionate about sharing the stories of inspiring, impacting individuals.

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