27 Nov 2008

How New Biotech Breakthrouhs Make It To Market

Think of life sciences, and what comes to mind might very well be the behemoths of the industry — the Genzymes and the Bristol-Myers Squibbs of the world

But there are plenty of smaller companies too — smaller even than the startups that can be seen for their first few years at one of the three Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives incubators in Worcester.

A great example of the very small companies that start with an idea and very little cash is Bradley L. Hodges’ Prothelia Inc., which is based in Milford. He is working to commercialize a small molecule protein that he believes will help children with muscular dystrophy.
Small Quarters, Big Dreams

He is literally a staff of one. He can’t afford space at MBI and even if he could, they require a certain amount of financial backing or a source of funding through revenues for at least the first year spent in their space. It’s been a pretty successful model, with close to 30 startups successfully leaving to become established elsewhere.

But Hodges is undeterred by his passion. “I want to create drugs for people. I have a passion about doing that and I have expertise about muscles. I want to use those things to bring a drug that will help kids with muscular dystrophy,” he said.

Hodges had a dream job working for Genzyme for seven years, but began to realize he wasn’t going to be able to help create new products. Big companies tend to buy other small companies or buy specific scientific work and have their scientists evaluate the work. Checking out other people’s discoveries instead of making his own eventually led him to lose interest in his job.

“I just started thinking: I can’t do this for another 30 years,” Hodges said.

So he left Genzyme and began looking for the right drug to bring to market. In his search he contacted a former friend and fellow student from college who only weeks before had discovered a small molecule that helps muscular dystrophy.

“The timing was incredible. I got my foot in the door very early. I learned about it before it went to patent, before research was publicly printed in a journal,” he said.

The protein is made naturally in our kidneys, and when it is purified and then injected directly into the muscles, there is a noticeable difference right away and the dose continues working for four weeks, Hodges said.

And as Craig Mello is wont to point out, the Worcester biotech community tends toward collaboration with each other and Hodges has become a beneficiary of that desire.

Kevin O’Sullivan, who heads the Worcester incubators, directed Hodges to local biotech entrepreneur Dennis Guberski, the CEO of Biomedical Research Models Inc., who gave him pointers on grant writing and agreed to house Hodges’ experiments on mice when the time comes.
Driven To Succeed

Guberski said he talks to as many as 20 entrepreneurs a year that ask for advice about how to proceed, and only a couple of those will actually make it.

“Less than five of those 20 people who say ‘I want to do this” have the drive to actually do it. And of those three or four people who try, only one or two will succeed,” Guberski said.

Hodges said he has successfully applied for a Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, grant for $100,000, which he will get in late winter or early spring. In the meantime, a muscular dystrophy patient advocacy group is paying his salary until the grant comes in.

The grant process is a natural vetting process that works well, Guberski said.

“It’s so difficult to get started. There are all these obstacles and it takes a strong desire to overcome them. But boy, it is fun. He (Hodges) went for a public health grant without ever having done this before and the first time out he succeeded. Our only help to him was showing him how to write a grant. We said never mind what the book tells you about applying for grants, do this. And he listened.”

Hodges agreed the process was difficult, but he sounded like he was enjoying himself so far. “It’s fun, but it’s kind of scary. I’ve learned more in the last year than I have in the previous 15 years.

He’d like some day to be a company as big as Genzyme, which began in the 1980s with one drug, Cerazyme, which has been a mainstay for them for 14 years and a $1 billion market.

“I want to be the person who says where the research will stop, who will take the data and run with it,” Hodges said.

Now if you could just bottle that drive that Guberski talks about, someone could really make a killing.


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