Just 1 more chance

Loser drugs are being turned into winners as biotech companies find it's cheaper to build on past research than to start from scratch

November 20, 2005|By TRICIA BISHOP | TRICIA BISHOP,SUN REPORTER

What do Viagra and Silly Putty have in common?

Both started out as something else.

In 1944, Silly Putty was a failed attempt to make a synthetic rubber for soldiers' boots and airplane tires, but it found fame and fortune after someone thought to package it in plastic eggs and sell it as a toy in 1949.

Viagra, also known as the "little blue pill," was developed in the early 1980s as a chest pain treatment, but it found its niche elsewhere in the 1990s.

"It didn't turn out to be as effective for its original purposes as it needed to be," said Kate Robins, a spokeswoman for Viagra's creator, Pfizer Inc. "But it demonstrated potential for male erectile dysfunction, and that use for that compound is pretty well known."

Inventors have a long history of turning losers into winners by changing their focus, and that is particularly true in the pharmaceutical industry, where some companies maintain in-house teams to find new uses for stalled or aging drugs.

More recently, companies have sprung up to investigate uses for drug experiments that didn't succeed as planned. These specialty companies - known as re-purposing, re-profiling or repositioning businesses - acquire drugs from others to develop themselves or contract their services to others.

About three dozen such companies have been developed over the past five years, industry experts say. Most are private and keep their financial data to themselves, but an April survey by the biotech publication BioCentury found that 14 of them had raised a collective $1.4 billion.

"I think this is kind of the wave of the future," said Thomas C. Dowling, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

"We're going to want to see the success rates of these types of companies. But I think they're putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together here relatively quickly. I think they'll be watched. ... There's a fair amount of watching going on right now."

Dr. Bert A. Spilker, a Bethesda pharmaceutical consultant, is less convinced.

"We most likely are going to have to have a revolution in the diagnostics industry before something like this can really turn out to be very positive," he said. "It's difficult to know. Companies are always basically looking for an edge. ... I'm very skeptical, but who knows, it could turn out to be important."

Second chances have led to some of the country's most popular products.

Coca-Cola was a questionable hangover cure in 1886, but it became a hit as a fountain drink. Post-it Notes, with their conveniently weak adhesive, came out of a scientist's botched attempt to make a super-strong glue in the early 1970s.

And Scotchgard, the fabric protector sprayed on everything from carpets to couches, was originally tested as a rubber for jet fuel lines in the 1950s.

But the stakes are often higher in the drug industry than in others. If a cookie recipe fails, Mrs. Fields can probably write off the loss without too much financial pain. But by the time a drug fails, it might have eaten up years of development time and stacks of cash. It can take a dozen years and a billion dollars to develop a drug, and most fail.

About 92 percent of drug candidates never pass the testing phase, the Food and Drug Administration estimates.

"There are thousands of drug candidates that never ... get off the bench for reasons that do not mean they are a bad drug," said Dr. Christopher-Paul Milne, assistant director of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development in Boston.

The drugs might not work as well as expected, the company might shelve the program in favor of more lucrative ventures, or the drugs might just need fine-tuning, he said.

The theory behind drug repositioning is that a fresh approach and scientific advances, particularly those in genomics, can uncover new uses for compounds previously thought to be duds. And they can theoretically do it in a fraction of the time it takes to create something from scratch and with less risk, because many of the stalled compounds have been found safe in people after several rounds of clinical testing.

"That's worth a lot to have that information," said James Barrett, general partner at New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm with offices in Baltimore. "It removes a great deal of risk. That's our game; that's what we pay money for."

Barrett's company recently financed Ruxton Pharmaceuticals LLC, a Baltimore biotech that has re-purposed an antibiotic as a treatment for Lou Gehrig's disease. The link was discovered through a project sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, which tested more than 1,000 compounds on neurological diseases to find out what might work.

In Pennsylvania, BTG PLC is acquiring drugs from others and reformulating them. Perlegen Sciences Inc. in California is working with pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and academic institutions to "rescue and improve drugs," according to its Web site.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.