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hit a specific target without causing a potentially dangerous immune-system reaction, Pfeffer says. Other technologies are making it possible to develop proteins that last longer in the bloodstream and therefore require less-frequent injections. Deeper understanding of the structure and function of targets on cells is making it possible to engineer drugs that will specifically hit the intended target, while avoid a similar target that may cause side effects, he says.
The opportunity for improvement in treating autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system goes haywire and starts attacking healthy cells like it does viruses, is immense. Protein drugs already make up a $10 billion market for one autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis. Drugs like Amgen’s etanercept (Enbrel) and Roche’s tocilizumab (Actemra) are just a couple examples of rheumatoid arthritis drugs that have proven the usefulness of a couple of targets, known as tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin-6 (IL-6), respectively. But that’s really just the start for autoimmune drugs. There are something like 80 different autoimmune diseases, and they’re estimated to affect as many as one in 12 Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health.
While Eleven isn’t saying much about the specific targets it has in mind for autoimmune disease, it has revealed one of them—the Th17 pathway. Another Cambridge, MA-based company we’ve written about recently, Lycera, also has its sights on this pathway as a target for conventional orally-delivered small molecule drugs.
The scientific founders of Eleven, and their backgrounds, may offer some additional clues about what the company is up to. K. Dane Wittrup of MIT is known for his expertise in the engineering of monoclonal antibody fragments; Casey Weaver of the University of Alabama has expertise in studying the biology of Th17; Gregory Verdine of Harvard University brings chemistry experience and deep knowledge of protein interactions; K. Christopher Garcia is known for his research into the structure and function of inflammatory proteins called cytokines; and Reza Dana is a prominent ophthalmologist at Harvard Medical School (which offers another clue of a disease category Eleven is focused on).
Getting prominent people on a scientific advisory board doesn’t mean much if they don’t contribute, so I asked Pfeffer how much these people are bringing to the company. They’ve all kept their academic day jobs, but they have committed “multiple days per month” to work together on the company over the past seven or eight months, in addition to fielding occasional calls to discuss issues at length with Eleven’s management team, Pfeffer says. “They have all signaled their willingness to spend substantial amounts of their time with the company,” Pfeffer says.
As is usual at Third Rock, Levin and Pfeffer plan to get deeply involved personally in the operations of the company during its infancy—serving as interim management for maybe six to 18 months, Pfeffer says—until they hand the baton to a permanent executive team. But before I hung up the phone, Pfeffer insisted he and Levin are very much enthused about this new idea.
“One of the reasons we are so excited is that there have been a number of biotech companies over the past five to seven years that get founded on one technology platform,” Pfeffer says. “The thing Eleven has is that we’re building products from Day 1, and we don’t just use one technology, but we’ve brought in a lot of expertise in protein engineering. We’re identifying the issues and bringing multiple technologies to work on it. It’s a dramatically different approach.”
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