TetraPhase Aims to Fill the Antibiotic Pipeline—and its Executive Office

TetraPhase Pharmaceuticals, spun out of Harvard in 2006 with $25 million to develop synthetic antibiotics, reached an important corporate milestone last week: the company had its first paintball outing. Though still a startup, with 14 people in its Watertown, MA, headquarters off Arsenal Street (just behind the AutoZone), the company went through the corporate team-building right-of-passage in anticipation of doubling its staff in 2008, says David Lubner, who is the COO on a half-time basis. The other half of Lubner’s week finds him working at Newton’s Mediphase Venture Partners, which invested in TetraPhase along with the likes of Fidelity Biosciences, Flagship Ventures, Skyline Ventures, and CMEA Ventures.

One of the new employees to come on board during TetraPhase’s planned expansion will be a CEO. The company has a short list of people it’s talking to, says Lubner.

Why not himself?

We need somebody with “deeper commercial and antibacterial experience,” he says.

That experience will be critical to moving TetraPhase’s technology—developed in the lab of company cofounder Andrew Myers, who chairs Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology—toward the market. Myers’ method allows for fully synthetic creation of novel antibiotics in the tetracycline class. The approach is, at least in theory, more flexible that traditional fermentation-based methods, which offer drugmakers only limited abilities to change the chemistry of the antibiotics. (Traditional approaches are so limited, in fact, that only one new tetracycline has won FDA approval in the past 30 years, according to TetraPhase.)

“If we prove the hypothesis, we have a compelling drug engine,” says Lubner. “Bugs always figure out” a way around an antibiotic, resulting in drug-resistant strains, he says. That means there’s always a market for new antibiotics—if a company can develop an efficient method to make them. “With a fully synthetic route, [there is the] notion of an annuity stream; as one drug meets with resistance, you tweak it.”

It’s an attractive notion—though not evidently for large pharmaceutical firms, many of whom have cut back their antimicrobial-development efforts in favor of pursuing drugs for common, chronic conditions. (It’s much easier to make a blockbuster by targeting something like high blood pressure or high cholesterol than it is by producing a drug that people only take for short periods of time; $500 million in annual revenue is pretty good for an antibiotic.) But the niche is still an appealing one for startups, says Peter Barrett, a partner at Atlas Venture in Waltham, MA. “What’s nice about the antibiotic space, you can tell in a Petri dish how well antibiotics work to get to proof of concept. That’s why it’s an attractive field for smaller companies.”

TetraPhase is hoping to move beyond proof of concept quickly. The startup plans to have its first drug candidate selected by the second quarter of 2008 and aims in the first half of 2009 to seek FDA permission to begin clinical trials, says Lubner. And since the tetracycline class of antibiotics has also shown anti-inflammatory and anti-angiogenic properties, the company is planning to screen its compounds for potential treatments for cancer and inflammatory disorders. Which means TetraPhase’s ambitions, like its staff, could soon be set for expansion.

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