Keeping an 'immigrant mindset,' Flagship taps a self-professed nomad as CEO for their next-gen viral vector upstart
Tuyen Ong considers himself a bit of a nomad.
Early in his life, he came to the UK as a refugee from Vietnam, and obtained his MD at University College London. Then he went to NYU for an MBA and began his career in biopharma at Pfizer, making further stops across the country at Bausch + Lomb, PTC Therapeutics and most recently Biogen.
Now, he’s ready for his next gig: CEO-partner at Flagship Pioneering and CEO of Ring Therapeutics, a gene therapy outfit where he’ll be running the show. When Ong looks back at his career, he says he can see how all the dots connected to lead him to this point.
“Noubar [Afeyan] is our founder and he’s an immigrant, and that immigrant mindset is somewhat in our DNA at Flagship,” Ong told Endpoints News. “The ability to be able to solve problems, be able to be creative, be able to have that pioneering spirit to overcome issues and find opportunity, I think that is a common thread that’s tied through my life, and that’s the philosophy I’ve been able to inject into different areas of my career.”
Ring itself was officially launched by Flagship in 2017 and focuses its research around a new class of viral shells called anelloviruses. The company hopes it can be an alternative to adenovirus-associated viruses, or AAV, and provide safer gene therapy treatments.
Ong said he was drawn to the position not only because of his interest in the gene therapy space — he previously worked at Nightstar, which, after being acquired by Biogen, was how he ended up there in the first place — but the ability to create such a platform in a more “natural” way. That’s because the anellovirus family resides in various tissues in the human body without causing any harm.
“These viruses have basically cohabited, co-evolved within the human system,” Ong said. “They are benign and they’ve somewhat evaded the immune system. The gene therapy field is thriving but it has hit a few roadblocks, and a lot of what’s driving that is the immunogenicity piece.”
Whereas AAV-related gene therapies can cause a range of illnesses and some patients may already have developed antibodies to the treatments, anelloviruses don’t come with as many side effects and can still be used to treat a wide range of diseases, founding Ring CEO Avak Kahvejian said. The company originally started out with just a handful of anelloviruses but over the last few years has uncovered “thousands” that could potentially prove useful.
Kahvejian and Ong aren’t quite ready to say in which fields they’re first looking to apply the platform, but noted that the spotlight will be across multiple modalities as well as a swath of diseases. And because the science is still so new, Ring is still working on the best plan of attack going forward.
“Ring is exploring all aspects of this viral family. Discovering them, engineering them, making them and applying them,” Kahvejian said. “The focus has been on getting dominion over this new, exciting area from all aspects.”
As Ring continues advancing this research, Kahvejian says Flagship has found someone who can get passionate about their vision in Ong. In their search for the CEO-partner, Kahvejian didn’t just look for someone with a great track record, but also someone with such “intangibles.”
The company already banked $50 million back in late 2019, indicating Flagship has already liked what they’ve seen. But Ong is confident that the best is yet to come.
“I truly see this as a transformative therapy that can hit upon so many different diseases,” Ong said. “It’s almost an ode to Mother Nature: We owe it to really take up the gift that we’ve been given here, the power of anelloviruses to be able to be deployed to treat so many different genetic diseases.”