20 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY May 9-15, 2024 www.montereycountynow.com inserted into plastic sleeves and pinned to a wall. There are also framed art prints, and as Wright leads a tour, there is art in every room. The pinned-up patents underscore his technical skill as a scientist, while the art demonstrates his convictions about healing. “There are only four things that heal people,” Wright says as he points out the artwork. “Humor, art, music and compassionate health care.” Later, he describes his offices as “an odd combination of a doctor’s office and a lab, with art and music thrown in.” Pre-pandemic, Wright had two grand pianos in his clinic for pianists who came in to play live. The pianists passed away and the pianos are now gone—he plays recorded music instead now. Wright prefers stride piano playing, a type of jazz. What takes up a good share of the building’s square footage is Wright’s lab that includes high-tech testing equipment, as well as equipment for treating multiple people at once, including treatment chairs for up to seven people and supplemental oxygen equipment for up to three people. Wright acquired the equipment in the early days of the pandemic—just in case. (Wright is quick to state they do not work with live viruses, bacteria or anything else that could harm anyone. “We don’t do anything dangerous here,” he notes.) Wright set up in Pacific Grove in 2019, first just a few blocks away from his current location in a smaller space off of Lighthouse Avenue. The new, larger location he moved into just last year has allowed him to continue treating patients, while also conducting D4 research. “This is the perfect place in the world to set up a biotechnology business,” he says of P.G. There is space available for rent and the climate is perfect, “no snow,” a big point for the doctor who has spent most of his life on the East Coast. “Steinbeck called Pacific Grove Eden, and it is the garden of Eden. I love this place,” he says. He doesn’t understand why other companies like his don’t follow suit. The company Wright founded with Cheryl Assemi of Carmel, D4 Labs, is privately held by the two. Their funding comes from three private sources, Wright says, with himself personally and another family-owned company providing funding when needed. Wright built his new business on his education and background in the area of infectious disease. His educational background includes studying biology at the University of Virginia, followed by UVA Medical School. He did an internship at Harlem Hospital in New York City, and a residency in internal medicine at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, along with a three-year infectious disease fellowship at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Since 1985, Wright has been an infectious disease practitioner who helped launch three biopharmaceutical companies, including the most recent, D4 Labs. One of those companies where he worked in the 1990s is Novavax, a small company that went on to gain notice in the early days of the pandemic for its own Covid-19 vaccine. Not long after he launched D4 Labs, the world was facing an enormous global pandemic. Wright was ready to jump in and help. As the Covid virus swept around the world and the death toll was rising—over 3 million people died in the world due to Covid in 2020, according to the World Health Organization (the toll is now estimated at over 7 million)—pharmaceutical companies were racing to develop vaccines that would offer protection from infection and death. Researchers didn’t have to start from scratch. There had already been vaccine studies of coronavirus, SARSCoV, as well as other viruses since the 1980s. Those studies laid the foundation for quickly creating new vaccines against Covid-19 at a record pace. The pandemic was declared by WHO on March 11, 2020. Just six days later, March 17, the first human trials of a vaccine developed by Moderna Therapeutics began in Seattle. (It was the same day shelter-in-place shutdowns were declared in Monterey County.) Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson followed, and by early December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had issued emergency use authorizations. The first vaccination in the U.S. outside of a clinical trial was given on Dec. 14, 2020. There were challenges to the vaccines, however. Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require extreme cold storage and dry ice for transportation. Simple refrigeration won’t do. Like many vaccines, they work through injections into muscle, which can lead to pain and swelling around the injection site. In addition, immunity is not long lasting, requiring multiple doses. “Wait a minute, I’m a vaccinologist,” Wright remembers saying to himself. What if, he asked, he could design something new that didn’t have to be injected into muscle, that wouldn’t require such cold storage and would only need a couple of doses? Wright, says his daughter, Emily Wright, is always looking for what’s been overlooked, and “delivering a superior product, but also [asking], ‘what’s the patient experience like?’” That duel approach comes thanks to his roles of both researcher and physician. Wright and his team got to work trying a few different methods of creating a better vaccine. They found the answer in one building block of the virus itself. If there’s a universal symbol of the Covid-19 emergency, it is the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself, pictured as a grayish or light-colored orb dotted by protruding red spike proteins, shaped something akin to a Medieval weapon. Those microscopic spikes allow the virus to latch on and attack human immune systems. Wright focused on those spikes, based on his extensive experience in constructing and deconstructing proteins. (Proteins are macromolecules involved in almost every cellular process of the body. They replicate and transcribe DNA. They also control cell division and the transfer of materials and information into and out of the cell.) The D4 team used a specific spike protein, called S1, of the C.1.2 variant of Covid discovered in Africa in 2021, because it contained many of the mutations that had been causing numerous cases worldwide (The highly infectious Omicron variant, which caused a significant number of cases in 2021, includes the S1 spike.) Noticing that other companies were using the entire sequence of a spike protein, Wright questioned if that was really necessary, Emily Wright says. The team found that certain sequences within S1 cross-reacted with human proteins and they “chopped out” those parts, explains Wright’s assistant, Jacob Hoadley. That left a modified spike protein to work with. Next, they encapsulated the modified spike protein in microscopic spheres, or structures—an area Wright has been researching since 1993—using “This is the perfect place in the world to set up a biotechnology business.” Hoadley inspects newly created structures for carrying vaccines under a microscope inside the lab. The D4 team was awarded a U.S. Patent in February for a new vaccine delivery system. The designing of the system was done in Pacific Grove but companies in other states were used to manufacture certain components.