In an industry dominated by giants, the leaders of several small, local biotech companies see a new day rising where the world will reap the rewards from breakthroughs sown by the little guys.
One of the local companies, Albemarle County-based Diffusion Pharmaceuticals, recently completed enrollment of 56 patients around the country in a phase two clinical trial of trans sodium crocetinate, a brain cancer treatment compound. Five patients in the study are undergoing treatment at the University of Virginia Medical Center.
The compound’s properties enable more oxygen to reach oxygen-deprived tissues, including tumors. Better oxygen saturation allows radiation treatments to work more effectively. The drug also could possibly help with strokes, heart attacks, respiratory issues or other conditions involving inadequate oxygenation.
“For a little company like us, this is the big deal,” said Diffusion CEO David Kalergis. “Twenty years ago, there was no way a 10-person company could develop a drug,” he continued. “There’s been this amazing shift in the pharmaceutical research industry.”
Kalergis said that big pharmaceutical companies have discovered that their corporate model of research and development — with perhaps thousands of people working on one project — isn’t always the best approach.
“We basically are the innovation center — we being the small biotech companies — are the innovation center for big pharma, and while we don’t and probably never will dominate … we’ll be in a pretty sweet position,” Kalergis said.
John Gainer, Diffusion’s chief scientific consultant, credited the company’s investors for their confidence during the economic downturn.
“I think everybody had to tighten their belts during certain parts of the recession and we did too. But I think we’ve had very loyal investors from this area, which has kept us going for a long time,” Gainer said.
Big pharma also has felt the sting of the recession, but that could actually turn out to be a windfall for smaller companies, said Robert Thompson, CEO of Lewis and Clark Pharmaceuticals.
“Right now, all of the big pharmaceutical companies have cut back their early-stage discovery, and they’ve cut back enough that their model now is to buy tech from universities or small biotech companies … It’s going to be viable for a company to develop early-stage development,” Thompson said.
In November, Albemarle-based Lewis and Clark was awarded a $100,000 investment from the Herndon-based Center for Innovative Technology. The company’s work is focused on two areas — stress imaging and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
“The economy has hurt the investment in biotech and people have pulled back a bit, although I think if you’re a company that has something of value, you can find [investors],” said Larry Rodman, Lewis and Clark’s vice president and chief science officer.
Looking ahead this year, Lewis and Clark is working to partner with a large pharmaceutical outfit to help test the company’s compounds.
“We’ve had some conversations with folks already so those relationships are in process,” said Miette Michie, Lewis and Clark’s chief operating officer.
On May 2, biotech professionals from around Virginia are slated to gather at the Boar's Head Inn for a conference to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Virginia Bio, a statewide nonprofit trade association.
“The coming year and beyond promise to be increasingly productive and exciting for the commercialization of the life sciences in Virginia,” Jeff Gallagher, the CEO of Virginia Bio, said by email.
“There are headwinds, of course, including the reorganization of how healthcare is provided and reimbursed. However, scientific and medical knowledge is exploding, and with it the opportunities to turn discoveries into difference-makers for people around the globe.”