Friday November 23, 2012 0 comments
Startup employs reverse engineering to develop canine cancer product
By Phil Lindeman
FORT COLLINS -- At VetDC -- a fast-rising Fort Collins-based biotech startup -- man is giving back to his best friend.
Over the past decade or two, improved veterinary care has helped domestic pets live longer than ever before.
But old age comes with its own set of problems, and Colorado State University's Animal Cancer Center cites cancer as the leading killer of adult pets in the United States.
At the same time, dogs have slowly become the go-to research subjects for human cancer drugs. For some cancers, canines better represent how a new drug might affect two-legged counterparts than mice or other animals, and pharmaceutical companies hold years of data on efficacy and dosage.
When a human drug doesn't quite make it to market, though, that wealth of research can be pushed aside and nearly forgotten.
For VetDC's President and Chief Operating Officer Steven Roy, such concrete and lucrative data shouldn't be wasted. The company is closing the gap between human technology and reliable veterinary medicine, dubbed "reverse engineering" by Roy and his counterparts. And the gap is enormous: Nearly 200 cancer drugs are approved for human use, while the vet market has only two.
"Whether it's a dog or a human, cancer is a difficult thing to deal with," Roy says. "There is actually a lot of crossover between the two, and what we found is human-issues companies weren't interested in the animal angle. We like to think we're giving pet owners some new hope of battling cancer."
VetDC is less than three years old but the company has made huge steps forward, thanks in large part to the previously untapped reverse-engineering model.
One product, a lymphoma pro-drug called VDC-1101, builds off research done by Gilead Sciences, Inc. By cutting the development stage down to roughly two years - a vast improvement over the 10 years for human drugs - VetDC has proven its worth to prospective investors.
Although Roy can't release full details until early December, the company recently secured enough funding to cover the majority of manufacturing expenses for VDC-1101.
"The entire market (for veterinary cancer drugs) is practically ignored, but you have this treasure trove of information about how these drugs work," Roy says. "We're shaving an enormous chunk of time by leveraging data that has already been generated."
One-of-a-kind tech transfer
Roy, a 13-year veteran of the biotech industry, came to VetDC in 2010 from Amgen, Inc.'s California headquarters. He knew firsthand how the decade-long process of research and approval for human drugs resulted in useful data, but was frustrated when it didn't lead to a commercial product.
VetDC was a prime opportunity for Roy and his team to make the most of existing research, particularly from pharmaceutical developers that already sought out CSU's expansive and top-ranked veterinary programs.
"A lot of companies, both animal and human, were looking at CSU to develop new products," Roy says. "CSU really gave us not only access to research and researchers, but we had all these companies coming together in one place. The reputation of the vet school is also a major booster - we couldn't survive without them."
Along with prestigious counterparts like the CSU Veterinary Teaching School and Animal Cancer Center, VetDC owes much of its early success to the university's five-year-old commercialization and tech transfer branch, CSU Ventures.
Terry Opgenorth, CSU Ventures vice president, worked closely with Roy to target companies already involved in canine research for future human cancer drugs.
By doing so, they flipped CSU's traditional tech-transfer model upside down.
"VetDC is a bit unique, in the sense that universities generally take technology developed by faculty and decide whether it should be licensed to an existing company," Opgenorth said.
"As we were looking at ways to better leverage the reputation of CSU's Veterinary Teaching Hospital, it became clear that many companies were coming to CSU for proof-of-concept work. When they abandoned their human programs, we had the opportunity to determine whether their technology could be licensed for the veterinary market."
Due to this approach, CSU Ventures played an integral part in linking VetDC to Gilead. The California-based company is large - it posted revenues of $8.4 billion in 2011 - but had little previous interest in using existing research for veterinary medicine. Roy and Opgenorth worked with Gilead to license the Gilead technology to VetDC, and with Gilead staff to transfer data and know-how to enable VetDC's development program for canine cancer.
Opgenorth calls VetDC a leading example of CSU Ventures' "active incubation" approach. Just two months ago, VetDC won the 2012 Venture Showcase competition at the 2012 BioWest Conference and Expo.
"CSU Ventures is all about being creative with how we can partner university technology and resources with industry," Opgenorth said.
More than money
Now that VetDC has secured funding for the VDC-1101 drug, Roy is eyeing a possible residency with the Rocky Mountain Innosphere. He also has his sights set on emerging projects, including a glaucoma drainage device developed by Aqueous Biomedical, Inc. and a diagnostic kit for pinpointing drug-resistant bacterial strains.
Although future funding will always be a hurdle ("It's expensive and time-consuming in itself," Roy says), one of VetDC's benefits is relatively low overhead. Roy operates with a two-person staff and two small advisory boards, relying heavily on sponsored research work at CSU facilities for the expensive equipment and surgical services that can drown many startups.
Opgenorth sees VetDC's overarching role as the same as all of CSU Ventures' spinoffs.
"It's really important to not just think about the monetary side of this," Opgenorth said. "It's just as important for the university to demonstrate it can have real impact beyond education."
For Roy, VetDC has introduced him to an entirely new facet of the biotech world. He finds it deeply satisfying to be involved with research that quickly results in reliable, effective drugs - the kind that give Fido a fighting chance.
"People are very willing to pay for these new, possibly more expensive treatments for their pets," Roy says. "People see them as family members, and this body of work is making people more comfortable with their aging pets."
Steven Roy photo credit: Dan Bihn