Cocrystal Discovery thinks it has found a way, built on Nobel Prize-winning science, that will lead to effective new pills that stop viruses from replicating. The Seattle-based company said today it has gotten some serious backing for the idea, raising a $10 million round led by The Frost Group, a Miami-based investment group led by billionaire entrepreneur Phillip Frost.
Cocrystal is led by chairman and CEO Gary Wilcox, 61, who was executive vice president of operations at Bothell, WA-based Icos until that company was bought by Eli Lilly & Co. in 2007. Cocrystal’s president is Sam Lee, who was a scientist at Icos for eight years, where he led drug discovery teams. The third founder is Roger Kornberg, a professor of structural biology at Stanford University who won the Nobel in 2006 for insights into how DNA is copied into RNA.
I gave Wilcox a call to find out what this is about. The basic idea is to develop conventional small-molecule chemical drugs to kill viruses, built on a better understanding of the biological targets they are supposed to hit. The company will use newer X-ray crystallography technologies to get high-resolution views of replication enzymes within viruses, knowledge which it can use to design drugs that block that critical machinery that can make viruses deadly. The research will initially focus on hepatitis C and influenza, Wilcox says.
“It’s unbelievably exciting,” Wilcox says. “I feel like I’m 21 years old again.”
Yet Cocrystal doesn’t have a technology license from a university that’s already done a lot of work, or drug candidates that have already demonstrated some proof of concept in animals, much less people. It has what it considers an exciting way to develop new drugs, and the passion of the founders, which sounds a lot like how biotech got started in the early 1980s. Frost, its chief investor, tends to keep a low public profile, but he’s worth an estimated $2.2 billion according to Forbes. He sold Miami-based drugmaker Ivax to Israel-based Teva Pharmaceutical for $7.4 billion in January 2006.
Frost entered the picture because of his connections to Kornberg, the Stanford biologist, Wilcox says. Wilcox goes way back with the Kornberg family too. Roger Kornberg’s father, Arthur, was on the board of Xoma with Wilcox and on the scientific advisory board at Ingene, an early public biotech company where Wilcox was CEO before he joined Icos.
Cocrystal plans to set up labs in Seattle and Palo Alto, CA, and to do much of its early work with “a handful” of people, outsourcing companies, and by relying on the expertise of its six-person scientific advisory board, Wilcox says. The board includes four researchers from Stanford, including Kornberg, and Roland Strong of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and Christophe Verlinde from the University of Washington.
The hepatitis C effort could end up being complementary to drugs like Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ telaprevir and Schering-Plough’s boceprevir, Wilcox says, because diseases like HIV have shown that antiviral cocktail approaches can be more effective than a single drug.
Wilcox says he plans to apply some of the lessons of success in the new venture that he practiced at Icos, which developed Cialis into a $1 billion a year drug for erectile dysfunction. It plans to focus on biological drug targets that have been validated, and develop drugs with advantages over a first-mover, like Cialis’ longer window of effectiveness compared to Pfizer’s Viagra. Cocrystal also plans to lock up intellectual property on its drug candidates early, and be “persistent” through the ups and down that all drug development programs go through, he says.
Cocrystal is looking to hire some people with its new capital, but he’s not talking about anything that would fill the void left by Icos, which had 500 employees locally, most of whom were let go by Lilly. “We want the best young people we can find, people who are full of energy and talent, and who have been trained at the best institutions,” Wilcox says. “People ask me a lot what the key is to success in biotech. I say, one, hire the right people. And, two, keep them.”
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