Former M.D. Anderson president: ‘We need the private sector’

Ron DePinho, a current professor and past president of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, founded a private cancer drug company that recently closed a $9 million funding round. Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. develops a cancer drug that acts as an inhibitor to STAT3 — a signaling molecule in our cells that, when left unrestrained, can sometimes lead to the development of cancerous tumors and other “serious inflammatory and fibrotic conditions,” according to a Sept. 20 release from Tvardi and the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

During his time at Harvard Medical School and as president of M.D. Anderson, DePinho observed how to be a successful entrepreneur in the drug discovery and drug manufacturing industries. After stepping down as president of M.D. Anderson in March 2017, DePinho co-founded Tvardi later that summer. With the $9 million venture capital investment and an additional $15 million in grants and non-dilutive funds, the company aims to complete Phase 1 clinical trials and proceed further into clinical research once it gets approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

What inspired you to found Tvardi?

I was born and raised in New York to poor, uneducated Portuguese immigrants who lived the American dream and sent me to school and worked hard. Then I was educated in New York and later moved to Boston. Boston was an extraordinary environment with the biotech industry, as well as Harvard and MIT. That was a really amazing experience.

Then I came to Houston. Houston is phenomenal when you really look at the history of the city. It has incredibly rapid growth, it is the energy capital of the world, it has one of the largest ports in the world, one of the biggest finance centers of the world, the largest medical center in the world and NASA. You’ve got this extraordinary record of making an impact of being a leader. One of the areas where there are enormous opportunities is in life sciences. We’ve done really well from the clinical standpoint, as well as from the academic research standpoint. But where we need to build is in this area of biotech innovation. We need the private sector to be able to convert an idea into a diagnostic or into a new drug.

I’ve been very fortunate in having an opportunity to conduct fundamental research to care for patients and understand their needs. My father died of cancer, so that was a very important aspect that defined my career and my devotion to making an impact on the cancer problem. Then I had the opportunity to build centers and organizations within the academic community. That is, I like bringing people together across different disciplines to try and make a collective impact.

I became very interested in trying to convert knowledge into clinical endpoints and realized that happens through biopharma. That happens through large pharmaceutical companies, through venture capital investments, through biotech, through formation of companies. At that point, I was a professor at Harvard. In the Boston community, there’s a real culture of entrepreneurial activity. I found that the best investigators were not just great researchers, but they were also individuals that started companies. I was really inspired by that.

Then I had the privilege and honor of coming to M.D. Anderson to lead it — the world’s largest cancer center with tremendous global reach. It was another opportunity to take a view of the landscape of opportunities and challenges of cancer.

How did you innovate in the cancer drug manufacturing space?

If you look at all the drugs that are entering clinical trials, one of 20 will become FDA approved — a 95 percent failure rate. And in fact, the high failure rate unfortunately doesn’t often occur until very late in the process, when you’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars. When you hear that it costs over $2 billion to make a drug, that is because you’re paying for the 19 failures as well as the one success.

So when I began to analyze why we were failing, it became clear to me that a fundamental reason was that there was too much of a siloed nature to drug discovery. I wanted to figure out a way to break down those silos. If you look at the process of drug discovery and development, you have all of this fundamental research and biology going on — that’s the first leg of the relay race. Then somebody in a biotech or pharmaceutical company decides to pursue that target. That happens in a different domain. Then after the drugs have been discovered, they go into the hospital with the clinicians where they do clinical trials. Because you have those different knowledge bases and activities ongoing in different domains, there’s not enough communication or taking advantage of the knowledge and experience of those different groups. So you have this hand off, but they’re not really connected.

At M.D. Anderson, in the “Cancer Moon Shots” program, we wanted to change the paradigm of how drugs get discovered. We brought the clinicians, who are experts in the disease, together with the biologists and the drug discoverers from the very beginning. They were communicating from the beginning. It actually led to a much higher rate of early termination of projects that clearly might have failed later.

Your company, Tvardi, recently secured $9 million in funding. What excites you about this opportunity going forward?

I think it’s really the opportunity to impact many millions of individuals who are suffering for which there is no therapy. As a physician and as a healer, that is what I’m most interested in.

So now, we’re going through Phase 1 clinical trials, and the $9 million will help us get through Phase 1 and into the next phase. We’re now dose escalating the drug, looking in the blood to make sure the drug is getting in, figuring out what the half life of the drug is, what the optimal dosing for the patient is.

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