Houston Startup Vapogenix Aims to Build a Better Pain Drug

Xconomy Texas — 

Treating pain usually means taking medication that has to course through our bloodstream—our entire body—before it can take effect.

The thing is, we typically feel pain in one place. So why can’t we just treat that specific area, and in a faster fashion? Houston-based Vapogenix is working on a drug that could do exactly that.

“Our core drug goes through skin in five minutes,” says Danguole Altman, Vapogenix’s president and CEO.

The base drug of Vapogenix’s drug are the liquid anesthetics—Altman doesn’t want to get into specific drug names for proprietary reasons—which are vaporized by anesthesiologists for use on patients during surgery. Vapogenix’s innovation, she says, is reformulating those drugs into a topical analgesic, either a patch or a liquid, that can be applied directly on to the skin.

“The pure drug is really volatile,” she explains. “The substance will evaporate.”

There are topical creams available, like Bengay, that provide some pain relief. Those base drugs—the “caines,” such as lidocaine or benzocaine—do relieve pain and numb the affected area, but they can take up to an hour to work.

Also, most drugs used for pain management are composed of opioids, which have the risk of addiction. Those drugs are also less effective when used to treat chronic pain. The body gets used to the drug and stops responding, requiring larger doses of the drug. And current pain medications have other less serious but uncomfortable side effects, such as constipation, Altman added.

The idea for better pain drugs grew out of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where Allen Burton is the chair of the department of pain medicine and Phillip Phan is the director of neuromodulation and pain management. They both worked with cancer patients with chronic pain and wanted a better way to treat that pain. Burton and Phan currently serve as co-chairmen of Vapogenix’s scientific advisory board.

Altman (pictured), a former McKinsey-ite, joined the doctors to form Vapogenix in 2006 and is the company’s “business person,” as she puts it. She’s joined by Heather Giles as chief scientific officer and Terry Farmer as director of chemistry, manufacturing and controls, and analytical services—creating an all-woman C-suite team, which is unusual in life sciences and technology startups.

It’s still early days for Vapogenix. If all goes without a hitch, its drug could be available by prescription in early 2016, and used primarily in hospitals and clinics for treating pediatric and dermatology patients. So far, the company has been hitting its milestones. Altman says it filed an Investigational New Drug, or IND, application with the Food and Drug Administration this week and has raised $3 million from high net-worth individuals in a Series B funding round that’s to close July 31. Vapogenix also has a $2 million grant from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. “I think we’re coming out of the Valley of Death,” she says.

If the FDA doesn’t reject the IND, phase 1 clinical trials with 41 patients could start as soon as September. Vapogenix has an agreement with Scott and White Hospital in Temple, TX, to conduct the trials. “The nature of our drug is, you know right away if it works,” she says.

Altman sees a couple of immediate uses for Vapogenix’s product. The first market is children. “They do feel pain more,” she says.

The drug, which could be available in liquid or patch form, could be applied to the child’s skin during IV punctures, especially for kids who are in the hospital often. It could even be applied right before children receive vaccinations—potentially soothing both mother and child. “You don’t have to wait for an hour for the medicine to take effect,” so it could also reduce the anxiety that usually builds up while waiting, she says.

Vapogenix’s drug could also be used by dermatologists for cosmetic skin procedures, including hair removal or even Botox. We once would just grin and bear it through procedures that cause some pain, but today “as a society we’re less tolerant of pain,” Altman says.

Down the line, other groups such as blood banks—which could use the drug to reduce the needle’s prick and encourage people to donate—might be interested. Even tattoo parlors could potentially use the drug. “Look, we’re not targeting the tattoo market specifically,” Altman says, smiling. “But you can see the possibilities of the use here.”