18 Apr UW-Madison spinoff Pedrus finds more to business planning than good science
Pedrus Pharma, a University of Wisconsin-Madison spinout that has sped to the finals in the Governor’s Business Plan Contest, may put a stop to the annual flu vaccine hoopla, among other things.
Founders Curtis Brandt and Hansi Dean, both UW-Madison researchers, are developing two drugs based on antiviral peptides discovered in Brandt’s lab. One shuts down respiratory viruses such as flu, while the other targets some sexually transmitted viruses such as HIV and herpes.
The emphasis is on prevention, not just treatment.
“Many viruses such as HIV and herpes cause chronic infections,” Dean said. “We believe that the best way to fight these diseases is to block them before they can create an infection, and we’re creating drugs to do that.”
About 10 years ago, Brandt’s lab came across research on proteins that could be used to stop the interactions between viruses and the cells they were infecting. Attached to peptides – proteins’ smaller cousins – these proteins would be absorbed into the cells and shut down the viruses.
Almost accidentally, the researchers found that the peptides alone, used as controls in the experiment, were as effective as the proteins.
“The controls worked better than the experimentals, which was a big surprise,” Brandt said. “The transport proteins themselves had antiviral effects.”
The technique was promptly patented through WARF, then advanced to the pre-clinical phase of development. After no licensing partners were attracted, despite WARF’s best efforts, Brandt and Dean decided to take the advice of those who encouraged them to move the patents forward by forming a company.
“We couldn’t apply for grants from the federal government as faculty members; the business had to apply for them,” Brandt said. “In order to take advantage of additional resources for drug development, it was necessary to form the company. The formal incorporation papers were just filed last month.”
Pedrus, an acronym of Peptide Drug Strategies, is a drug-discovery company. After taking its first two drugs through trials, it may go on to develop others.
“It turns out that bigger pharmaceutical companies are basically wanting to see a compound get either to the start of phase one or through the phase one clinical trials because there’s much less risk,” Brandt said. “This makes it much easier to find someone who’s interested.”
Pedrus is not alone in this market. There are four antivirals on the market that kill respiratory viruses, and about five companies that are serious contenders in microbicide. Pedrus hopes it can take the lead with drugs that stop several different viruses and stop viruses from causing infection in the first place – as the company’s informal slogan says, “keeping the barbarians at the gate.”
“For the STDs, there are currently no acceptable drugs on the market for blocking HIV and HSV [herpes simplex virus],” Brandt said. “The complex that was being used has been shown to actually enhance your ability to catch these STDs. … There’s a big problem with barrier methods for women; our products would be able to be self-administered, and then she would be in control of the protection.”
Pedrus plans to get to get the two compounds past phase-one clinical trials and to the point where they can be licensed. Once both have been licensed and submitted to the FDA as investigational new drugs, the company plans to branch out to other endeavors, either other antiviral peptide compounds, or to other applications of their patented biotechnology.
The company plans for federal grants to cover most of its $7 million in costs to put the two lead compounds through testing, but it is also trying to attract $1 million to $2 million in venture or angel investment.
“We need an office, but not laboratory for the first 4-5 years of the company, which we hope will keep the costs down,” Brandt said.
The pre-clinical trials, and all of the other development that Pedrus Pharma will be doing with its drug compounds, will need major funding. With eligibility as a company established, Brandt and Dean decided to apply for the Governor’s Business Plan Contest because it gave them extra impetus to come up with a business plan and connected the company with angel and venture capital investors as well as advisors.
“Hansi and I come at this from the scientific background, not a business and clearly not an investment background,” Brandt said. “What has surprised us is how the scientific aspect is really downplayed. The focus really has to be on how investors will really benefit from investing in your project.”