Cocrystal, Led by Icos Vets and Stanford Nobelist, Hunts for Next Big Thing for Hepatitis C

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can be a challenge, especially when people are so absorbed in a demanding and collaborative task like leading-edge drug discovery. Wilcox says the Seattle and San Francisco teams use Skype video calls quite a bit to keep people on the same page. One advantage of being in two places, Wilcox says, is that the company can recruit a team of top people that it would never be able to attract in just one location.

It’s still too early to say how Cocrystal’s drugs might be applied in the medical world. But like many other scientists and executives, Wilcox says hepatitis C is going down the road of cocktail antiviral therapy, much like HIV. Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Merck have made headlines this year with new protease inhibitors that have greatly boosted the cure rate for hepatitis C therapy, although scientists now want to combine those drugs with other antivirals that can help stop resistance, and eliminate other co-medications that cause side effects.

Cocrystal in particular is focused on a polymerase inhibitor, and a helicase inhibitor which could be part of a cocktail regimen. Princeton, NJ-based Pharmasset (NASDAQ: VRUS) is one of the most visible contenders in the polymerase inhibitor field.

Cocrystal has paid close attention to what the competitors are up to, Wilcox says. While others might make it to the market first, that may not be a bad thing, he says. Sometimes drugs that are second or third to market have the advantage of looking at the structures of the lead compound, and working around some of the undesirable properties, or side effects, produced by the lead drug. That was what Icos did in the late ’90s when Pfizer introduced sildenafil (Viagra) for erectile dysfunction, and Icos followed with a longer-lasting version called tadalafil (Cialis).

Both drugs are billion-dollar sellers today, even though Viagra hit the market five years earlier. Wilcox says he can imagine history repeating itself, as Cocrystal looks at the existing drugs in the works for hepatitis C and tries to one-up them.

“Competition makes you better,” Wilcox says. “Whenever you compete, you rise to levels of competence you might not otherwise reach.”

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