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※LABIOTECH.eu: Pinning Down Elusive Targets: Interviewing the Co-Founder & CSO of Heptares.
17/07/2017

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Heptares began as a platform company, but as Marshall told me, “from the very beginning, the management team and the investors wanted us to use the platform to generate our own valuable pipeline.
We know that our platform keeps on producing, so we’re going to keep using it to build the pipeline — that’s really the plan to grow the company with Sosei,” the Japanese pharma that acquired Heptares in 2015.

This ambition is the key to the company’s strategy in picking target indications. “A lot of GPCRs are activated by hormones,” said Marshall, “and endocrine diseases are an example of smaller indications where we can more easily take candidates through all the way to the market.”

Speaking to the broad reach of GPCRs, Marshall told me, “We’ve also built up significant expertise in the CNS area,” making the field a prime target for Heptares’ next wave of drugs.
The cohort will include candidates for narcolepsy and drug addiction, as well as some undisclosed leads in pain that became the subject of a deal with Daiichi Sankyo.
Marshall described the collaboration, “they have one specific target, but they were struggling to get the right sort of chemistry…so they came to us to collaborate on exploring the structures and identifying the right novel chemistry.”

This Japanese giant is the most recent of Heptares’ pharma partners — the biotech has already collected quite a stable of them.
Marshall pointed to Pfizer in particular, which chose to work with the company as its main GPCR partner in drug discovery after seeing the value of applying structure-based design to its enzyme programs.
Meanwhile, Allergan, Teva and AstraZeneca have all signed on to license drug candidates discovered by the Heptares team.

The acquisition by Sosei was the key to this development: “Since the acquisition, we can take candidates deep into the clinic ourselves, potentially all the way through to market,” said Marshall, which has allowed Heptares to boast a pipeline in addition to its platform technology.

The British biotech outsources a lot of its work. “We are semi-virtual for quite a lot of the components of our process,” Marshall told me.
“The core platform technology is all done within Heptares because that involves a lot of know-how, but much of our chemistry, for example, is done by chemists in India, China, and other CROs in the UK.”

To those who balk at becoming a virtual biotech, her advice is, “you can’t give the CRO complete freedom: They need to be managed, so you do need people in-house to oversee their work.
You need to spend your time really working out who are the best people for you to work with. When we started, we ran projects in parallel with a number of different companies to figure out who was the best fit for us. And then you develop long-term relationships, and trust, with those companies.”

Marshall remarked that this style confers a huge advantage: “It’s very flexible, and you can pull in expertise.”
This flexibility became critical to Heptares’ success, because, as she described, “GPCR research is applicable to many different therapeutic areas — it would be very difficult to manage if we did everything in-house because you’d need so many different disease experts and types of animal models.
But by outsourcing, you can get the leading people who run the best models and bring in consultants who are experts in certain disease areas.”
By going virtual, a biotech can really have it all.