Biotech Vet Dunsire’s New Challenge: Grow Tiny Startup, XTuit
Boston biotech veteran Deborah Dunsire is back running another life sciences company—but for the first time, a fledgling startup. The former head of Millennium Pharmaceuticals is now president and CEO of a two-year-old company called XTuit Pharmaceuticals.
XTuit is a very different animal from the companies Dunsire (pictured) has helped lead in the past. She spent almost two decades at big public organizations, Novartis and Millennium, before taking the helm of a relatively large and established privately held biotech, Forum Pharmaceuticals, in 2013. Now she’s leading a 30-employee startup in Waltham, MA, XTuit, which is still mapping out its strategy and is roughly a year away from its first human clinical trial.
“I’ve run companies that have a lot of profit, companies that are just turning profitable, and companies that have tremendous resources behind [them],” Dunsire says. “Now it’s time to learn something different.”
Being a biotech CEO is like being a parent, Dunsire says. Large organizations are more stable than startups, just as young adults are more stable than infants, she says. But Dunsire was drawn to the idea of nurturing and guiding a newborn company. While XTuit ultimately wants to develop treatments for cancer and fibrotic diseases, it is still deciding exactly which ones to target first and how many drugs to develop simultaneously. Dunsire will have to figure that out, which will dictate how much funding the company needs and how big it will become.
Dunsire was the president and CEO of Millennium for eight years—five of which came after Takeda acquired the company for $8.8 billion in 2008. She stepped down in May 2013 amidst a sweeping reorganization at Takeda and resurfaced in a surprising spot two months later—as the CEO of a neuroscience company, Forum, then known as EnVivo Pharmaceuticals.
Forum, which was 12 years old and had a drug in late-stage clinical trials when Dunsire took the reins in 2013, was an unusual biotech story. Instead of having the typical syndicate of venture backers, it was mainly funded by financial giant Fidelity, thanks to former Fidelity CEO Ned Johnson’s passion and support for Alzheimer’s disease research. Forum had no need for deals or outside investors to survive. Nevertheless, Dunsire planned to find outside investors, and to shoot for an IPO.
But for that to work, Forum’s lead drug candidate, a treatment for Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, had to succeed. It didn’t—an Alzheimer’s trial was placed on hold by regulators in September 2015 due to safety problems, and two schizophrenia studies failed last March. As Xconomy reported last May, Dunsire then left the company, and Forum was shuttered a month later.
Dunsire intended to get some down time. “Just don’t talk to anyone for a few months,” she recalls someone advising her, but she couldn’t resist. She soon started chatting with folks around the Boston biotech scene and connected with two different XTuit backers—Polaris Partners partner Alan Crane and New Enterprise Associates general partner David Mott—over the summer. They told her about XTuit’s plans, and she took to the idea of directing a company with such potentially broad scope and large scale.
XTuit aims to produce drugs that target stroma—connective tissue made up of a bunch of different cell types that helps form the structure of organs, and enables them to function properly. Stroma can go into overdrive when certain diseases, like cancer, take hold. In some cancers—of the pancreas, for instance—tumors can trick stromal cells into building a thick, firm wall that can be hard for drugs to break through. XTuit’s goal is to calm these cells down, so they behave normally again. In cancer, that might help other drugs, like immune system boosting “checkpoint inhibitors,” or even chemotherapy, work better. In fibrotic diseases, maybe it could reverse the internal scarring. But XTuit will need the human data to prove it. The first trials should begin next year.
“I feel like we could make a really big difference here,” Dunsire says.