The Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) first came into my realm of awareness when I saw Tom Hanks in a video on Facebook talking about COAF in support of its upcoming gala. Within months, a myriad of celebrities were cheerfully joining in videos on social media to give a shout-out to COAF. From Nicole Richie, Ariana Grande, John Stamos, Lori Loughlin, to Martin Short and Conan O’Brian who recently broadcast his humorous trip to Armenia exploring the culture, language, and cuisine. Name dropping aside, the campaigning and gala were successful and a wonderful amount of funds were raised for COAF.
A quick read produced the following: COAF is a non-profit focusing on reducing rural poverty, through “education, healthcare, community and economic development”. What began in one village in the country of Armenia has expanded into 45 villages. Its method has been to use a “cluster village model” approach. This sparked my curiosity. Who was behind this operation? What was actually going on in bringing access to a country with such history and birth of globally influential minds, yet so much of its population isolated from information? This may be the right time to mention I was born in Armenia, along with many others, my family and I emigrated to the States fleeing the Soviet Union and seeking opportunity. A new trend has been settling in, a trend in which those with Armenia in their blood have been finding ways to contribute or permanently settle back were their roots were planted. I was pleased to have the opportunity to get to know the individual whose brainchild this is, Dr. Garo H. Armen.
Garo emanates efficiency. The first few minutes of conversation was spent on him gathering the blueprint of our chat. This was so he could provide thorough information in the most effective and easily digestible manner. He is the Chairman and Founder of COAF as well as the Chairman and CEO of Agenus. The company has spent 20 years committed to immuno-oncology, targeting the immune system to fight disease; we’ll dive into more of this in a bit.
Garo came to the United States when he was 17, he studied chemistry and went on to get his PhD in physical chemistry. With no prior background, chance and exposure led him to the financial market. He found himself leaving research to go to Wall Street, became a specialist in pharmaceutical technologies and subsequently, biotechnology. His career on Wall Street varied from banking to managing money. He then came across technology he felt seemed to address the problem of cancer fundamentally as a complicated disease. When Garo mentions technology he is referring to “individualized cancer vaccine technology because cancers are individually distinct from person to person”. This got him interested enough to start Antigenics, now known as Agenus.
The idea of COAF came about on Garo’s visit to Armenia where he recognized a need. In rural Armenia, access to information or technology has been quite difficult to say the least. He explains, “At this time the objective of COAF is to empower children, the youth, and the overall population so that they can take charge of their own future. That’s the primary objective. We do this by a wide range of programs, from education to healthcare to social structure.”
At a time when intervention was limited, and chemotherapy was nonexistent, Garo’s mother had lived through and died of cancer at the age of 47. He feels even when chemotherapy was introduced it “was not really a fundamental way of addressing cancer”. When he came across this technology in 1993, a technology he felt strongly enough could turn out to be a solution, he pursued it. After 24 years he thinks we are on the path to solving cancer, “I’m not referring to inadequate treatments, but cures”.
THE FIRST VILLAGE
During Garo’s first visit to a local school in a village, he was shown how treatment would work. He felt the situation was painful and unsafe to continue this way. “At that time I thought that if we simply addressed the school issue we would solve it, bit by bit we discovered that things weren’t that simple.” After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of Armenia, there was a palpable deterioration in the education system. Garo saw a dire need for repair “not just physical construction but also reteaching teachers how to teach, administrators how to run a proper school, empowering young children and students, how to learn. Because they were going down the wrong path.” He felt COAF’s approach was holistic and addressed issues fundamentally.
Garo and his team quickly discovered major problems with the healthcare system. “We had to do the same all over in healthcare, first the physical infrastructure and then training nurses and doctors how to treat patients, to teach parents and children how to conduct healthy lifestyles”. Garo stresses importance of not going into these villages dictating how things should be done rather, collaboratively learning what the community feels its issues are and actively participating in the process.
Soon, trust between the villagers and COAF began to grow. The organization then began experiencing other issues in need of addressing: social, psychological, discrimination against children with disabilities. This is when they began developing customized programs, including specialists. Word spread to other villages, Garo explains, “We’re now at about 45 villages. It became clear to us that the rest of the Armenian landscape, some 900 villages in total, needed help. The question then was, we spent 14 years to reach 45 villages, are we going to spend a hundred years to reach the rest of Armenia? That wasn’t really practical. So we developed this concept of SMART”.
COAF’s first SMART center has been built in northern Armenia, a 20-acre campus in Lori. “SMART is an experimental model to see if we can have a multiplying effect much faster than doing village by village” explains Garo. Strategically located in a major throughway, the objective is to use modern communications technology and high-speed Internet to access the larger part of the global population and make connections otherwise impossible. This is also an opportunity for locals to exchange their knowledge, including unbiased free-thinking ideas. For instance, Garo expresses, that “There is a growing drive to promote innovation. Some of the more progressive companies, not just technology companies, biopharmaceutical companies and others, are setting up innovation centers. One of the objectives of setting up an innovation center is to populate them with groups of individuals who are not biased with corporate culture, because even though some of the corporations do wonderful things, they erect or transmit biases that prevent people from thinking freely”. Garo sees the value of the exchange of information, knowledge, and skills thinks that’s why, “SMART would be a fantastic experiment to see what can be created away from the urban environments and the corporate environments that we are so obsessed with today”.
With a staff of over 190 professionals working with COAF in a number of villages and 20 newly on board just for SMART, their numbers in various fields are growing. Garo emphasizes the organization being highly integrated with centers of excellence in education, healthcare, psychosocial and economic development.
How do you overcome biases and prejudices associated with disabilities? Garo feels education is critical. “When you educate young people about these issues, the outcomes are fantastic, because what we see is initiatives by them that maybe even Western programs haven’t thought about on how to overcome these biases and issues and help these children who have disabilities. Some of them are physical handicaps; others are non-physical. What you see is an ecosystem developing where they become a part of a family.” Garo notices a more harmonious society when these prejudices are dealt with. He does not claim to be able to deal with this in every single household but does think the equilibrium is tilting in our favor. When good outcomes are seen, others emulate them, and he sees this behavior occurring.
IMMUNOTHERAPY & AGENUS
I was curious to know about the types of cancer showing most reaction to the immunotherapy. Garo explains cancer is an individualized disease, every person’s cancer is unique, down to its DNA: the mutations driving each person’s cancer are specific generally to that person. This is what led him to the decision he made in 1993, “The only way you could successfully battle cancer, the only way, was through the immune system, because the immune system has a phenomenal ability of being able to direct the armies of the individual’s immune cells to specific cancers, specific infections, and so on”. He admits to being a bit naïve when they began this journey, and the science wasn’t as developed at the time. “Twenty-four years later, we know a lot about the science, the biology of the disease and the immune system. We know today, for example, the most effective immunological means of targeting and destroying cancer is with the right combinations of agents. Those combinations will vary from cancer to cancer, from individual to individual. They’ll vary.” Garo mentions the focus of differentiating treatments from cures. “A lot of treatments were approved in the U.S. as treatments on the basis of slowing down the progression of cancer, sometimes by as little as a 14-day survival benefit. And nobody bothered to ask about the quality of life of the patient in those last 14 days.” He says because of immunological treatments, cures are possible. For example, Stage IV metastatic melanoma, “50% of melanoma is essentially cured today”. Garo expects tremendous progress being made every year at Agenus in curing previously incurable cancer patients.
Dr. Garo Armen travels to Armenia at least six times a year, and he has seen the outcome of being hands on, trusted, and the respect needed in order to use his information and resources to enhance the quality of life of a community. With COAF and Agenus, he continues to use his personal experiences, privileges, and acquired knowledge to share with those that may benefit.