MicroRNA Drug Developer Santaris Establishes Toehold in San Diego With Isis Veteran

Santaris Pharma, the Danish company that has pushed the first microRNA therapy into clinical trials, is opening a U.S. subsidiary in San Diego to take advantage of the talent pool of people familiar with cutting-edge RNA-based therapies. As it turns out, that includes Art Levin, a former leader of drug development at Carlsbad, CA-based Isis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ISIS).

Santaris, founded in 2003, has recruited Levin to serve as president of U.S. operations and chief development officer for the Denmark-based parent company. Levin tells me his job will be to usher Santaris’ drug candidates through development, and build a team of about 8 to 10 people in San Diego to help raise the company’s profile with prospective partners and investors in the U.S. and Asia. The San Diego operation isn’t expected to do basic research, which will remain in Denmark, he says.

“There’s a wealth of science and RNA drug expertise here in San Diego, and Santaris understands this is a great place to do business,” Levin says.

RNA-based therapies have long excited scientists because they are supposed to offer greater ability to target the root causes of many diseases than conventional chemical compounds or genetically engineered proteins. MicroRNAs offer another new frontier because they can affect not just one gene or protein in isolation, but rather networks of genes. That might be useful in treating complex diseases like diabetes or heart failure, where multiple genes are thought to be out of whack. Isis and Regulus Therapeutics, a company Isis created with Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, are leaders in the field, but Santaris has been gaining visibility for its work. The Danish company has struck new collaborations this year with U.K.-based Shire and Madison, NJ-based Wyeth to co-develop RNA-based therapies.

When I asked if Santaris is also hoping to recruit some of Levin’s friends and former colleagues from Isis and Regulus, he said that would not be appropriate. He noted that biotech can be a “small world” and that he has a lot of friendships in San Diego he wants to keep.

But, he quickly added, “If people knock on my door, that’s great.”

Levin spent about a dozen years at Isis before he left in 2007 to do some consulting for drugmakers on RNA-based therapies. He said he did expert consulting on “all the major players” in RNA based therapies, and decided to take the Santaris job because he likes the chemistry Santaris is using the best.

The company’s advantage, he says, is that it can make RNA-based compounds that have higher affinity for a given target, which means they bond more tightly with the molecules that make up their target. They also appear to be more specifically aimed at targets, which means that they might be more effective at lower doses than competitors, he says.

All of this work is in really early-stages of development. Santaris will get a better feel for what it has when it sees results from its first trial of a drug to block a microRNA target called miR-122, which is being tested as a potential therapy for hepatitis C. The drug, SPC3649, is scheduled to start a mid-stage clinical trial in hepatitis C patients in the second half of this year, according to the company’s website.

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