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On the Frontlines of the Search for a COVID-19 Vaccine

February 16, 2021
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How biotechnology company Sanguine Bio helped Pfizer develop its coronavirus vaccine

The worldwide effort to administer COVID-19 vaccines to the world's population is underway. The race to create these vaccines happened at lightning speed; the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine took less than a year to develop, from viral sampling to clinical testing to approval, a feat unprecedented in the history of vaccine development. And East West Bank client Sanguine Bio, a leader in in-home biospecimen collection and direct-to-patient recruitment, has been on the frontlines of that effort.

In the early stages of the pandemic, Pfizer needed blood samples from patients who recently tested positive for COVID-19 to study their specific antibodies, which are proteins produced in the blood to counteract viruses or other toxins. It was essential to test the vaccine candidates using those blood samples to understand the mechanism that can prevent people from getting infected.

"Before the vaccine is tried in humans, it's referenced against blood samples from recovered patients in a test tube," says Brian Neman, the CEO of Sanguine Bio. "They basically use the blood samples to confirm the efficacy of their vaccine."

Sanguine was charged with the urgent task of collecting blood samples from recovered COVID-19 patients, while states were going into lockdown. Neman began to mobilize a network of medical technicians, called phlebotomists, to visit patient homes and draw blood. Many declined the job, despite the offer of increased pay. It took an intensive search-and-recruit effort for additional personal protective equipment and a team of 160 phlebotomists to send into the field with stringent new safety protocols to collect the samples. In the end, about 1,000 patients signed up, and around 500 samples were collected and sent to Pfizer, La Jolla Institute for Immunology and other research institutions.

The software platform

Before the pandemic, Sanguine was busy recruiting and registering patients on its health care technology platform for medical conditions such as asthma, lupus, breast cancer and sickle cell disease, among others, to accelerate research and drug development.

"The patients want to pay it forward," says Neman. "And they want to find a way to give back to the next generation. They know that the way to do that is by contributing samples or data to a responsible research entity."

About 30,000 patients have signed up on Sanguine's digital platform, forming a detailed database that researchers can use to find people that fit the specific criteria they need for clinical research studies and trials on numerous diseases and potential treatments.

"We've indexed it, which allows for faster search," Neman says, adding that without that feature, it would be like "searching for books on Amazon without the search bar."

Gerald Lee, CPO and Co-Founder and Brian Neman, CEO of Sanguine Bio
"Before COVID, home visits were perceived to be a risk. Now, it's a risk mitigation strategy, as traveling to medical centers and hospitals is no longer a safe option for patients. If researchers are not performing home visits, they run the risk of not completing their studies on time.”

-Brian Neman

The platform also allows patients to give medical record review authorization and to schedule a mobile medical technician to come to their home for a blood draw. The phlebotomists can take photos to input proof of diagnosis and other health data into the software and out to the field teams. To date, Sanguine has contributed samples to more than 600 studies nationwide.

"Before COVID, home visits were perceived to be a risk. Now, it's a risk mitigation strategy, as traveling to medical centers and hospitals is no longer a safe option for patients. If researchers are not performing home visits, they run the risk of not completing their studies on time," Neman says.

Line of credit to fuel expansion

At the start of the pandemic, Sanguine almost shut down the company temporarily when all activity around patient studies were halted due to pandemic concerns. Then, they began receiving inquiries for COVID studies. To meet the urgent need, it was imperative to scale the business quickly, and that's when Neman turned to East West Bank for help.

Karen Cheng, vice president and portfolio manager of the venture lending emerging tech division of East West Bank, helped Sanguine get a revolving line of credit and a term loan. "We helped them to increase their working capital and other financial needs, and we also provided them with a PPP loan," she says.

With the line of credit and term loan, Sanguine was able to decrease their interest expenses, while expanding liquidity. It also enabled them to take on shorter-term infrastructure investments, such as additional software development and the ability to increase home visits and data collection. "We expect to see a return on that investment within six to nine months," Neman says. "We are able to improve the patient experience and expand our commercial operations to serve additional pharmaceutical clients and research institutions."

These investments have allowed Sanguine to expand and take on more clients, and Neman says that the company's run rate has doubled year over year.

"The longer-term change was that our clients deeply appreciated our ability to go to patients' homes to collect blood samples, and that evolution in the market is here to stay," Neman says.

For more tips, go to our business continuity toolkit with the latest resources on how to deal with the pandemic.

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