Russell Potterfield only planned to invest in Endevica Bio. But after an unexpected series of events, he became the company’s CEO.
Endevica, in fact, marked Potterfield’s first investment into a drugmaker. As an angel investor, he says he was attracted to nondilutive grant funding that Endevica had secured and the company’s “healing potential." The early-stage biotech specializes in peptide drugs, and the company’s lead compound is aimed at treating cachexia, a wasting disorder that’s often a companion to cancer — and can even be deadlier than the cancer itself.
Over time, Potterfield found Endevica increasingly compelling and wound up as board chairman and interim CEO. After a busted executive search, he took on the CEO role full time.
Another twist makes the story more unusual: Potterfield’s background lies not in biotech but in manufacturing, design and logistics, including the founding of 511 Capital, which calls itself an “incubator” for “accelerating businesses.” Potterfield says his past experiences — such as moving potential products through the regulatory process, securing intellectual property rights and working with consultants — set him up well for his current role.
“I'm used to coming into work every day and staring into the abyss and saying, ‘OK, where is the blue ocean? What can we find? What strategies, what tactics can we figure out to move the business forward?’” Potterfield says.
In the first half of the year the company plans to file an investigational new drug application (IND) for its cachexia program, TCMCB07. The compound is designed to reduce inflammatory proteins called cytokines that decrease appetite and cause weight loss for those with cachexia, a disorder that’s the cause of death in nearly 20-40% of cancer patients.
“If you can block the receptor that's talking to the signaling protein that the cytokines are influencing, you can alleviate the symptoms caused by the inflammatory response,” Potterfield says.
Although he may not have originally been a science guy, Potterfield is honing his new found passion for the space to guide Endevica into the clinic.
Behind the scenes
Founded in 2009, Endevica stumbled on the journey to an IND, largely because the company conducted some preclinical testing that wasn’t needed, Potterfield says. But, he adds, Endevica is now on a smoother path. The company plans to raise a Series A financing after a phase 1 study, assuming strong results. Potterfield is eyeing the company going public midway through a phase 2 clinical trial. The timing of these planned financings would allow Endevica to reach critical milestones.
“There's a real strategy to who we're going to talk to and when,” Potterfield says.
Endevica’s TCMCB07 was discovered by Dr. Kenneth Gruber, Endevica’s founder and chief scientific officer. Endevica holds the intellectual property rights to the compound, which Gruber invented between academic positions.
“We're really in charge of our own destiny,” Potterfield says.
While Potterfield brings financial savvy, even the business side of biotech takes scientific know-how. For help in getting up to speed, Potterfield says with a laugh that he watched free lessons through Khan Academy, an online learning platform. It didn’t hurt that he scored high marks in high school chemistry classes.
Despite being a relative newcomer to biotech, Potterfield finds the space “endlessly fascinating.”
Endevica’s technology platform modifies peptides to create candidates that can cross the blood-brain barrier that typically prevents drugs from reaching their intended target. In seeking to succeed where other cachexia drugs failed, Potterfield points to the company’s technology, combined with a shifting regulatory environment.
The FDA previously measured a cachexia drug’s clinical trial success through, for instance, grip strength or the ability to climb stairs. Potterfield says after patient advocacy, the FDA signaled it will prioritize endpoints that reflect a patient’s experience, like extended lifespan.
Pfizer is also pursuing several cachexia drug targets, including one program that aims to start a phase 2 trial by the end of the year. But Potterfield doesn’t necessarily view the drug giant as competition because Endevica’s program has a different mechanism of action, and the hope is that Pfizer’s more advanced candidate could clear a regulatory path.
“We feel like the running back behind a great big offensive lineman,” he says.
Another cachexia drug to watch, Adlumiz, which was developed by Swiss pharma group Helsinn and Japan’s Ono Pharmaceutical, won approval in Japan last year. But in 2017, the European Medicines Agency refused a marketing authorization recommendation for Adlumiz among patients with non-small cell lung cancer who are experiencing anorexia, cachexia or unintended weight loss. The agency upheld its decision upon an appeal from Helsinn.
Even with other candidates in development for cachexia, the condition remains a huge unmet need with plenty of room for multiple solutions.
“If you can cure cachexia, if you can ease cachexia in a pancreatic cancer patient and extend their life, you’ve done such a magical thing for somebody else. And there's no other space in the world, there's no other occupation where you can do that,” he says.