Most biotech stories in 2009 are about companies hunkering down or otherwise playing it safe with incremental advances, not people just getting started with an audacious dream. Malcolm Kendall has one of those dreams. He’s starting a company that aims to identify new targets on cells that haven’t been proven before, and create antibiotics to hit those targets. It’s all in the name of coming up with a creative way to fight dangerous pathogens that infect people in the hospital.
The new company, Indel Therapeutics, is based in Vancouver, BC, not far from where its intellectual property originated at the University of British Columbia. Kendall, a former venture capitalist with Durham, NC-based Intersouth Partners, is the CEO, and he told me the story a couple weeks back while he was fundraising in Seattle at Invest Northwest with chairman Mike Abrams, the former CEO of Vancouver, BC-based AnorMed.
Indel is trying to solve one of the problems that freaks out U.S. hospital administrators. There is growing incidence each year of nasty and sometimes deadly bacteria like MRSA or “C.Diff” plaguing U.S. hospitals. Every year, about 1.7 million people in the U.S. get hospital-acquired infections, which kill about 99,000 people a year. It costs the U.S. health system $27.5 billion annually—which is about the same amount the country spends on its entire biomedical research budget. Many of these bugs are becoming increasingly resistant to traditional antibiotics, and pharmaceutical companies have struggled to come up with anything good enough to pass muster with the FDA (see recent stumbles with new antibiotics from Theravance and Targanta Therapeutics). So Indel sees this as a pharmaceutical market that’s ready for new ideas.
“If this works, this is big,” Kendall says. “There’s a screaming need for new targets and novel compounds.”
The idea, from UBC scientist Neil Reiner (who is chair of the Indel scientific advisory board), is to look for subtle differences between proteins found in the pathogen and in people. Based on the deeper understanding scientists now have of genomics, it’s possible to find insertions or deletions in genetic code—hence the name Indel—that can serve as new drug targets. This is a whole different class of targets for antibiotics, which has traditionally veered away from targets that look anything like healthy human proteins, because of the chance the drug will hit the healthy stuff as well, and cause unwanted toxicity, Kendall says.
Indel’s technology is still very early, and has a lot to prove. The company licensed the technology from UBC in September, and has raised its first $450,000 from angel investors, Kendall says. The company bought 240 small-molecule drugs from the University of California, San Francisco last fall, and is using them to run experiments that can verify if its targets are any good. So far, the company hasn’t selected any lead compound, much less entered rigorous animal studies the FDA needs to see before a clinical trial can begin.
Not surprisingly, in the current financial environment, this is not an easy sell to investors. “There are only a few VC’s that will do something this early,” Kendall says. Many of the big drugmakers are interested in antibiotics, and have said they might be interested once Indel can show them a compound with some evidence of effectiveness in animals. One thing about antibiotics is that the animal models tend to be more predictive of success than for cancer drugs, say, which means the company should be able to drum up more interest at a relatively early stage, Kendall says.
One strategy for fundraising is through U.S. biodefense, since one of Indel’s targets, yersinia, is better known as bubonic plague. South San Francisco-based Achaogen recently won a five-year, $26.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to discover and develop drugs against this potential bioterrorist agent. Since the government is willing to pay for that kind of research, and the yersinia bug has some genetic things in common with other pathogens, this might be one way Indel can get some momentum for its business strategy, Kendall says. If that happens over the next year, and VCs have climbed out of their bunker by then, Kendall hopes to be on his way to making some big strides against a growing problem.