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Pico Pharmaceuticals, In Its Early Days, Aims to Make More Potent Cancer Drugs, Anti-Bacterials

Xconomy San Diego — 

One out of three biotech companies in the U.S. are running down to their last six months of cash, but biotech entrepreneurs are continuing to start new companies. The latest one to cross my desk is San Diego-based Pico Pharmaceuticals, which emerged last week on the local biotech scene in style, with a scientific paper in Nature Chemical Biology that offers clues into how it might be able to make more potent anti-bacterial drugs.

Anyone with less than a PhD in molecular biology would probably have a hard time understanding why this paper is important, so I asked CEO Tim Boyd to help cut through the jargon. He was happy to talk, especially since he’s been spending a lot of time telling this story, while raising money in New York.

Pico is built on two decades of research by Vern Schramm at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. The idea is that conventional small-molecule drugs can be made to hit targets on cells, but they often alter the shape of that bull’s-eye in the process. That makes a receptor more like a moving target in which the drug becomes less potent and effective over time, Boyd says. The researchers at Einstein sought to solve this problem through what’s called transition state quantum chemistry, which essentially takes an ultra-fast snapshot of a target at the precise moment you want the drug to hit it. Armed with that knowledge, and a partnership with researchers in New Zealand that make compounds to hit these targets, Pico has gotten up and running.

“The theory is that if you have a molecule that looks a lot more like the target, it will bind tighter,” Boyd says. “Our drugs hit the target, and they don’t come off.”

What that really means in practical terms is that such drugs shouldn’t cause as many side effects, which typically pop up when less-specific drugs spray out and hit a variety of targets. Pico’s drugs also could be cheaper to make because they can have a potent effect at low doses. These drugs can be made to be taken orally, and they might be able to be given less frequently, Boyd says.

This chemical technique provided by the Albert Einstein researchers hasn’t yet been applied for developing an FDA approved drug. But Boyd says the technology has been licensed to Birmingham, AL-based BioCryst Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: BCRX) and Cambridge, MA-based Sirtris Pharmaceuticals. One BioCryst compound is in the final stage of clinical trials for cancer.

Pico has its sights on taking its first drug candidate into clinical trials within 12 months. The first candidate, PC8608, is being designed to hit an enzyme critical for cancer cell proliferation, called MTAP. This enzyme plays a role in some of the leading cancer killers-tumors of the lungs, prostate, breast, and colon, Boyd says.

The second option is to go after the kinds of infections people tend to pick up in a hospital—like staph infections or meningitis. Pico has its sights on a sister enzyme to MTAP that’s called MTAN. It hopes to finish up the necessary animal tests by the end of this year.

All of this requires cash, which, as you may have heard, is hard to come by in a recession. Boyd isn’t saying how much money has gone into the company, but I get the drift it’s not a lot. It will take $8 million to $10 million in venture capital to carry out his game plan.

Why get started in San Diego? For one, it has an established talent pool for recruiting experienced scientists. For another, it provides access to biotech investors. But as far as U.S. life sciences hubs go, this is the one place where an Australia native like Boyd can easily go out and take a break by surfing.

“Everything we need to drive the company forward is here,” Boyd says.