Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bio-IT World Keynote: How to Start a Drug Company

"I will be shocked if there aren't drugs in the market in the next 10-15 years that target aging genes [and pathways]." - Christoph Westphal, CEO of Sitris Pharmaceuticals, responds to a question from Kevin Davies, Editor-in-Chief of Bio-IT World.

The kick-off keynote at Bio-IT World 2010 was given by Christoph Westphal, a doctor and scientist who has started a number of small drug companies. While most of them lost (or are losing) money, one was a widely-acclaimed success, at least for a time.

The conference was opened by Cindy Crowninshield, the conference director. One major challenge the conference has faced has been the need to find 20 replacement speakers due to travel disruptions caused by the Icelandic volcano.

The keynote was introduced by Ronald Ranauro, CEO of GenomeQuest, a company trying to carve out a niche in the next-gen sequencing data market with a SaaS offering they describe as "SDM" (sequence data management). It's not clear to me yet how they differ/integrate with LIMS solutions, but we'll find out more on Thursday, as I'll be meeting with them and another colleague from Jackson.  Ron pointed to the exponential growth in genome data has a tremendous opportunity.

GenomeQuest is looking to aggregate 1 million public genomes.

Back to Christoph, who told the story of Sitris, which was eventually acquired by Glaxo-Smith Kline for $720M.  They are working with Resveratrol, the anti-aging compound found in red wine. The talk focused on the process and components of a drug start that has a chance of making it.

This wasn't a topic of particular interest to me, but there were some interesting thoughts. By coincidence I had just had a long conversation with bandmate Jim Coffman, who is researching aging with sea urchin larvae at the MDI Biological Lab, on a ride back from band practice. It was great exercise for what I've learned in Genetics I and II over the last year. Jim's work focuses more on the TOR pathway (which is linked to rapamyacin, something being studied by Dave Harrison's lab at Jackson), but it seems similar to the SIRT1 pathway, which is regulated by resveratrol.  The big picture here is that caloric intake affects these pathways, in that a calorie-restricted diet has been repeatedly show to extend lifespan in multiple organisms.

But that wasn't the interesting part of the talk, really. More interesting was the insights to the incredible pace of progress in this field of research. Fifteen years ago, Christoph noted, it was considered crazy that there were genes involved in aging; now it's a major area of research.

Some other conclusions he's reached that apply fairly broadly:
  • it's more about the people than the technology
  • good teams overcome failures
  • a powerful vision/idea will attract supporters
He also noted that there is debate about whether to share data and information, or withhold it for competitive advantage. He is very strongly of the opinion that it is more important to share data and show you're a thought leader than worry about proprietary issues.

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