By Joseph Walker
Christos Kyratsous, the top Covid-19 drug hunter at Regeneron
Pharmaceuticals Inc., likes to go fast. He drives a Porsche 911,
but lately he has been riding his pricey Swiss-made racing bicycle
to his office north of New York City.
Velocity became more important than ever this year for the
39-year-old Greek scientist. He is helming a team of Regeneron
scientists sprinting to develop the first drug specifically
designed to treat Covid-19 and temporarily protect against new
The closely watched drug hunt caps an unlikely journey for a
butcher's son from Greece. A few years ago, Dr. Kyratsous was a
middle manager and scientist researching infectious-disease drugs
that were of little interest on Wall Street and little consequence
in the U.S. Today, he is one of the company's most high-profile
scientists, playing a pivotal role in efforts to slow down the
The tall, soft-spoken Dr. Kyratsous is among the little-known
researchers, companies and foundations that have emerged from the
oft-ignored field of infectious-disease drug research to lead the
charge against the world-changing virus.
Dr. Kyratsous specializes in designing drugs for viral
pathogens, work that turned Ebola into a treatable disease and now
has informed Regeneron's coronavirus efforts and given the company
confidence they will pay off.
When Chinese scientists published the genetic code of a new
coronavirus spreading in Wuhan in January, Dr. Kyratsous assumed
the outbreak would die down before becoming a global problem. Just
in case, though, he asked an outside firm to make a noninfectious
form of the virus that his team could study in their labs in
"Initially, I thought, 'We'll order it and see what happens,'"
Dr. Kyratsous says. But the virus was spreading so fast that the
order couldn't come soon enough. "Five days later, 'I was like,
'Why isn't it here yet?'"
Dr. Kyratsous grew up in a small town in northern Greece, where
his mother taught high school and his father ran the family's
generations-old butcher shop. "I never had a very defined goal of
what I wanted to do in my life," Dr. Kyratsous said. Yet his family
pushed him to take education seriously, and he excelled in math.
That fueled an interest in how things work, including the human
body and the viruses that attack it.
In 2004, Dr. Kyratsous came to the U.S. for graduate school at
Columbia University because, he says, a mentor convinced him that
he would have more opportunities to do interesting science. He
studied in the lab of Saul Silverstein, a professor of microbiology
Dr. Kyratsous says he didn't have long-term career goals or
ambition to work in the pharmaceutical industry.
While doing postdoctoral research at New York University,
however, Dr. Kyratsous says he accidentally met a scientist at
Regeneron who mentioned the company's fledgling infectious-diseases
division. The conversation led to a job offer, which he says he
took, in 2011, after Dr. Silverstein advised he could do important
science in industry.
"A post-doc isn't something you can do forever," says Dr.
Kyratsous. "At some point you have to get a job."
When a new Ebola outbreak in West Africa surfaced in 2014, Dr.
Kyratsous was working on a project called "rapid response" aimed at
applying the tools Regeneron developed for chronic diseases like
vision-loss to rapidly make medicines for new viruses driving
epidemics around the world.
Regeneron created the project, a spokeswoman says, to apply its
drugmaking technology to threats to human health, though the
biotech didn't see much commercial potential in the effort. The
research has been supported by U.S. government funding, including
$167.5 million for their Covid-19 drug.
The Ebola drug he helped develop helped turn the deadly
hemorrhagic fever into a treatable disease in the Democratic
Republic of Congo, which this week declared the latest outbreak
over. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now weighing
approval of the drug.
That project's success helped lead to Dr. Kyratsous's promotion
last year to vice president overseeing infectious diseases and
gene-therapy research. It also helped build confidence that a drug
could be rapidly developed in the midst of an epidemic, colleagues
"I asked him the other day, 'Are we ever going to be back in the
office?' And he said to me, 'Our antibodies are going to work,
Leah. You'll be back in the office,'" says Leah Lipsich,
Regeneron's vice president of strategic program direction.
In the first week of February this year, Dr. Kyratsous's team
began the process of injecting a form of the coronavirus into
special mice with genetically modified immune systems to generate
antibodies the researchers could make into a drug.
As the weeks wore on, Dr. Kyratsous watched the virus sweep
across the globe and inch closer to home. Each evening after he put
his children to bed, Dr. Kyratsous says he would get a call from
Chief Scientific Officer George Yancopolous asking for updates on
the team's progress.
In March, he heard from doctors in Italy who were interested in
using another Regeneron drug, Kevzara, to treat abnormal
inflammatory responses to the virus. "They sounded totally
desperate. Every day they were getting more and more people and the
ICUs were overflowing," Dr. Kyratsous says.
Not long after, a cluster of infections popped up in Westchester
County, not far from Regeneron's headquarters. Dr. Kyratsous began
hearing of friends and co-workers hospitalized by the virus.
Dr. Kyratsous and his team are taking precautions to avoid
infection from the virus they are racing to defeat. He rides his
bike about 25 minutes on relatively empty roads to work. The
researchers stagger hours to limit the numbers in the lab, while
spreading out to different desks and conference rooms in the
office. And they communicate by Skype.
"Ebola is very serious, but there was never spread here in the
U.S.," says Dr. Kyratsous. "That's so different from everything
else we did in the past.
Earlier this month, Regeneron began testing in humans the
antibody drug cocktail that Dr. Kyratsous's group devised. He has
been talking with hospital officials and doctors about the
molecules to encourage enrollment of patients in the trial. Most
drugs fail during testing. But if the cocktail proves to work
safely, Regeneron officials say it could be ready for emergency use
in the fall.
Write to Joseph Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 26, 2020 09:17 ET (13:17 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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