By Barrett Seaman—
George Yancopoulos, co-founder, along with Dr. Leonard Schleifer, of Tarrytown-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, has every reason to be optimistic about the future of his company. As announced this summer, Regeneron is poised to invest $1.8 billion in an expansion of its Eastview campus. The investment, which will add nearly a thousand high-end jobs, will fund a cluster of mini-labs devoted to the development of any one of several new treatments for a variety of diseases, each with its own pilot production facility big enough to stock a clinical trial.
And yet Yancopoulos, who has an MD, a PhD and some 100 patents bearing his name, is far less optimistic about COVID-19, the virus that has thrown the world into its worst pandemic in more than a century, even as it has thrust Regeneron into the limelight as the creator of Regen-COV, arguably the most effective treatment for those already infected with the virus. The inability to attain herd immunity, the growing evidence that vaccinated people can become infected—even if they do not get terribly sick, says Yancopoulos, “means that this virus is here to stay, that it’s not going away.”
“I think that we may be dealing with something that we’re going to, unfortunately, have to learn how to live with.”
“This is going to create a continuing reservoir for new variants to emerge. So, you know, I had hoped, like everybody else, that herd immunity, widespread vaccinations together with some natural immunity would maybe get close to eliminating this problem,” says the man who is now Regeneron’s President and Chief Scientific Officer. “I think that we may be dealing with something that we’re going to, unfortunately, have to learn how to live with, which is going to necessitate ongoing vaccine development, abilities of new vaccines to create better resistance or better immunity against these variants that are emerging, and we’re going to continue to need these treatments for the people who get sick.”
Unlike “Big Pharma” companies such as Eli Lilly, Pfizer or Roche, Regeneron does not sell over-the-counter drugs and thus has less need for a large marketing or advertising department. Yet there is a hint of a salesman when Yancopoulos speaks about Regen-COV’s place in the spectrum of treatments for the coronavirus. The so-called antibody “cocktail,” he says, should be seen as part of the broader arsenal of weapons, along with the current vaccines—“a souped-up backup for that because it’s essentially like giving them the most perfect vaccine type of antibody response you could expect.” If one of its two antibodies does not neutralize a variant of the virus, the other will—and the “cocktail” can be re-mixed to be effective against emerging variants.
Moreover, he says, Regen-COV is the answer for the estimated eight to ten million Americans who are not going to respond to the vaccine. “The good news is with these sorts of people there is now a backup, an insurance policy, which is our available treatment.”
National Public Radio recently reported that there has been a surge in orders for Regen-COV from around the country as the Delta variant sweeps through areas with low vaccination rates.
Yancopoulos acknowledges that one reason the government is reluctant to promote Regen-COV is because “they are afraid that once people know there is a powerful treatment out there it might actually promote vaccine hesitancy.”
He is critical, albeit cautiously, of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has approved Regen-COV for emergency use but not yet granted full approval. [It’s] “a little disappointing to us,” he says, “that other countries, for example, the United Kingdom and France, have already authorized our antibody cocktail treatment for use in the immunocompromised people as a chronic prevention. And the FDA, we hope, will follow shortly thereafter, but we are disappointed that these other countries made this recommendation that’s making this available … before we have the opportunity to help our own citizens here in America.”
There was controversy last year stemming from former President Donald Trump’s access to Regen-COV—a treatment that reportedly saved his life—before it was authorized even for emergency use (which it now is), while thousands of other Americans suffering from the virus were unable to get it. Regeneron’s role in that incident was a passive one, Yancopoulos explained. Trump was given dispensation under the FDA’s “compassionate use” clause, reserved for situations where a patient’s recovery depends on a medicine that may be well short of completing the approval process.
“It’s not an equitable system as many people have pointed out,” admits Yancopoulos. “Most people … don’t know how to get to the compassionate use system. Obviously, people who are in a position, such as the President of the United States, you know they have people around them that know exactly how to navigate that system. But unfortunately, it’s not an equitable system that can be used to deliver to all the many people who need it.”
(More recently, Gregg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas and a staunch opponent of mandated vaccinations and masking, tested positive for COVID and was treated with Regen-COV, but under the “emergency use” allowance for which the drug now qualifies.)
Regeneron’s Stock in Trade: Genetic Engineering
Regen-COV is just one example of Regeneron’s success in developing drugs and treatments based on genetic engineering. Using their own proprietary technology, the company’s scientists already have nine FDA-approved medicines for ailments including blindness caused by diabetes, allergic diseases like asthma, atopic dermatitis, cancer and heart disease. It was their work in developing a treatment for Ebola in 2014-15 that provided the building blocks for their COVID drug.
The company’s next chapter is where the new Tarrytown expansion comes into play. By adding almost a million square feet of laboratory space, Regeneron will be able to continue to pursue a range of therapeutic approaches to treating disease, including their specialty of antibody therapies as well as using CRISPR (Clustered, Regulatory Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) gene-editing technology. Recently, Regeneron and Cambridge Mass.-based Intellia Therapeutics announced a breakthrough in treating amyloidosis, a genetic disease that affects the heart and other parts of the body, using CRISPR gene-editing techniques. The new expanded facility on the Eastview campus will be home to other, similar projects, with the capability to produce trial-size batches of medicines before they go on to full-scale production at Regeneron plants upstate and in Ireland.
“We’re going to be hiring a lot of scientists,” says Yancopoulos—” the ones who do the groundwork, the background work, to go through the science to justify the medicines that we’re developing. They’re actually making the early versions of the medicines and testing them.”
Why Tarrytown? “As you all know, it’s a great area to live, to raise families,” he says. “Our people love it here. And so, we’re just hoping to continue the magic that we’ve built here over the last 30 plus years.”
Regeneron and Schools
The son of Greek immigrants who grew up in Woodside, Queens, George Yancopoulos was admitted to the renowned Bronx High School of Science, “one of the greatest public schools in the country,” he maintains. He graduated valedictorian of his class as he would later at Columbia College. Encouraged by his high school teachers, he applied for and won the Westinghouse Science Talent Research competition. At Bronx High School of Science, he recalls, Westinghouse winners “were viewed like top football jocks;” other students would whisper to each other as they passed one in the hallway. The Westinghouse win “gave me the confidence and the inspiration to actually become a scientist.”
Yancopoulos earned his medical degree at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, later got his PhD there and pursued research in molecular immunology before he and Len Schleifer launched Regeneron.
Winning its competition also inspired him to adopt the Westinghouse competition itself, after it subsequently became Intel’s before Regeneron reconstituted it as the Science Talent Search. In recent years, students at Irvington, Sleepy Hollow and Ossining High Schools have been recognized for their work as part of the Regeneron Science Talent Search.
The company also sponsors the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) that promotes STEM excellence all around the globe.
“We think it’s critical to be inspiring and engaging that next generation of young people who we hope are going to just, you know, stand on our shoulders and take it to the next level and make even bigger and greater discoveries and help with all the existential threats that we know society and humanity is facing now and will be in the future.”
It’s the “now” part that worries George Yancopoulos. “Humanity, I think, is going to be in a battle for a while trying to fight back and we’re going to need all the tools at our disposal,” he says. “You know engage the best and the brightest, and maybe the next generation of scientists too. Maybe one of them in the future is going to come up with something that can really put this behind us. But for the foreseeable future I think this is going to be something we’re going to have to learn how to deal with.”
The full video interview with Dr. George Yancopoulos on which this story is based can be seen starting August 27 on Indy Talks, on this site as well as on The Hudson Independent’s Facebook page or on Greenburgh Public Access television (Cablevision channel 75 or Fios channel 34 within the Town of Greenburgh each Friday of the month at 9:30am, 3:30pm and 8:30pm).