Valocor Therapeutics, a QLT Spinoff, Envisions Safe Anti-Acne Drug and More

One of Vancouver, BC’s big biotech success stories, QLT, was clobbered by Genentech a few years ago in the market for treating age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness among elderly people. But during its heyday, QLT spawned a few cool R&D projects, and now some of them are being packaged into a new spinoff, Valocor Therapeutics.

Valocor emerged from stealth mode yesterday with a technology license from QLT for dermatology drug candidates, plus an undisclosed amount of seed financing from the Working Opportunity Fund managed by GrowthWorks Capital. Valocor is led by a quartet of founders, including Julia Levy, one of the driving forces behind QLT’s light-activated verteporfin (Visudyne), a drug for macular degeneration.

The idea at Valocor is to take some of what QLT learned about light-activated drugs, and apply it to the skin. The lead program will explore whether the company can develop a light-activated lotion that destroys the glands that produce excess skin oil that clogs up pores and causes acne. If this technique can clear up pimples, without damaging the underlying skin tissue, Valocor expects it could tap into a huge potential market that’s currently underserved. Roche’s isotretinoin (Accutane) is an effective oral pill for severe acne, but has long been controversial because of its link to birth defects. If Valocor’s treatment can offer a similar effect in a safer product, it could have a viable new option for 5 million people in the U.S. who seek medical treatment for acne each year.

“There’s a huge need because of the lack of innovation in dermatology,” says Valocor CEO Dan Wattier. “Big Pharma basically walked away from dermatology 25 years ago. And these are big markets.”

Dan Wattier

Dan Wattier

The story of how Valocor set sight on those markets can be traced back about five years. QLT was riding high then on sales of Visudyne, and was looking for new applications of light-activated drugs that could be effective in localized organs, like for urology or dermatology. Then in July 2006, Genentech won FDA approval for a new treatment, ranibizumab (Lucentis), that blew away eye disease specialists and made the QLT product look obsolete. Predictably, QLT’s sales and market share plummeted, forcing it to unload some of its R&D projects and secondary products, Wattier says. (If you want to see QLT’s pain, check out these annual financial trends.)

One of those projects that got shelved during the cost-cutting effort was a drug called lemuteporfin. There were reasons to put it on the back burner. It had failed to show an advantage over placebo in a trial of patients with enlarged prostate.

But the R&D guys saw another use for it, as a light-activated acne treatment. And it made some sense from a marketing standpoint. Acne is currently treated with over-the-counter lotions for a lot of people. Dermatologists often use ultraviolet light to zap the microscopic sebaceous glands that produce too much skin oil. Sometimes they prescribe oral antibiotics to kill bacteria that congregate around the hair follicles and clogged-up pores, Wattier says. But both of those treatments are only temporary, and in the case of antibiotics, over-use can lead to bacterial resistance. Roche’s Accutane, as mentioned above, can be extremely effective, but risky.

Here’s how Valocor plans to tackle this problem. The company has developed an alcohol-based lotion that gets prepared at the doctor’s office. It’s inactive until it comes into contact with a certain wavelength of light, Wattier says. The drug gets absorbed just a couple of millimeters into the skin, where the sebaceous glands are, and the light is focused there, but not deep enough to go below the epidermal layers or into the bloodstream, Wattier says. The goal is to essentially destroy the sebaceous glands, stopping them from secreting excess oils. Since this drug doesn’t go into the blood like Accutane, it shouldn’t … Next Page »

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