Ellen Sherberg, Bizwomen Contributor
Feb 4, 2022, 10:57am EST

As Omnicron continues to take a toll on the country, we’re reminded how many women are on the front lines of health care. Some in the hospital setting, some as public health leaders and others, like Teresa Whalen, in the research lab where, as CEO of CytoAgents, she leads a team of world-renowned clinical drug development experts and scientific advisory board members to find treatments for Cytokine Release Syndrome (CRS), an overreaction of the immune system causing systemic inflammation.

“An experienced CEO and a pharmacist, I was recruited by the lead investor to take over at the helm of the company when it was originally focused on treating cytokine storm triggered by infectious diseases. In addition to the infectious disease indications, I repositioned the focus of CytoAgents and evolved the company to create a foundation of science that would support a pipeline of indications across many diseases — prioritizing areas where cytokine storm is most life-threatening with a fast path to market. Right now, CytoAgents is preparing to start Phase 2 Clinical Trials in cytokine storm triggered by CAR T-Cell Therapy, where up to 70 percent of patients experience some level of cytokine storm.

With the successful completion of Phase 1 Clinical Trials, increasing funding from investors and not just one, but two National Institutes of Health grants,* I was recently selected for the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ North America Class of 2021, which identifies ambitious women entrepreneurs who are leading thriving organizations and helps them scale their companies to their full potential as market-leading innovators.

The pandemic has brought the condition of ‘cytokine storm’ to the forefront. Not only does cytokine storm, more universally known in the medical community as ‘cytokine release syndrome,’ (CRS) impact mortality when it comes to Covid, it is associated with similar problems with certain cancer treatments. Interestingly, our lead drug candidate’s ability to safely modulate the cytokine response makes it an ideal solution to address CAR T-Cell therapy-related CRS in oncology.

With the positive Phase 1 trial results, an oversubscribed equity round, solid scientific and business strategies, and the addition of preeminent oncology and venture capital experts to our board, CytoAgents has built tremendous momentum in a relatively brief time. I am driven by knowing that we can make a difference on mortality, economic burden and strain on our overall healthcare system as a consequence of CRS and that our therapeutic is positioned to be a new, breakthrough therapy to meet this threat head-on.

How am I making that ambitious mission happen?

It’s a 24/7 effort with operations that span the globe and are firing on all cylinders. The team I have built is composed of world-renowned clinicians and scientists, clinical drug development and regulatory experts, as well as those skilled in the areas of patent law, business development and finance. Together we have built a culture of collaboration, excellence, and urgency. We have great momentum built through value creation in a very rapid period of time. My leadership style is to build a team with the best minds capable of hitting milestones and executing on the strategic plan in a capital efficient manner.

Working with my robust, national, and international network has also proved valuable. Being recently selected by the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program is an incredible honor and validates the strength of our business, forging connections with the vast EY network will help propel our business to even higher levels.

As an angel investor myself, I also try to make time to mentor female-led startups and speak at events that can help entrepreneurs by sharing my experiences and lessons learned. Fostering a strong ecosystem of innovation is critical for breakthrough technology and economic growth and innovation.

What have I learned from the age of the coronavirus?

  1. The only constant is change. I adapt my plans to capitalize on opportunities and am not afraid to make bold choices that further our plans. The pandemic clearly showed that innovation is at the core of the American spirit. Combining commitment, mobilizing resources, and providing access to capital creates potential with no boundaries.
  2. Be mission driven. We aim to cure CRS by modulating the body’s response to cytokines, as a universal treatment across multiple markets, oncology, infectious disease as well as in the autoimmune category. It is a big, bold goal with global impact and the potential to save lives.
  3. As a leader, focusing each member of your team on clear priorities, leveraging their highest value, and fostering cross discipline collaboration has produced results beyond my expectations.
  4. Build relationships with investors early. Having established relationships with those who can invest makes the funding process faster and smoother.”

This is a time for virtual community and sharing. If you would like to contribute to this ongoing narrative on the impact of the pandemic on women’s lives, please send an e-mail to esherberg@bizjournals.com.

*NIH Award Numbers 1R44AI152726-01 and 1R44AI157719-01