Dad-turned-CEO draws Pfizer in Duchenne drug development pact

Race to cure rare diseases
Race to cure rare diseases   

Ilan Ganot never planned a career in drug development. But everything changed for him and his wife, Annie, when their son, Eytani, was diagnosed two years ago with a rare disease.

"Even just looking at Wikipedia, you see wheelchair by 10, 11, 12, and that most of the boys don't make it past their early 20s," Annie said in an interview. "It was devastating. Words can't describe, as a parent, how you feel."

Eytani, 4, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic muscle-wasting disease. There's no cure for DMD, and no drugs are approved for it in the U.S.

Ilan, who was working with hedge funds at JPMorgan when Eytani was diagnosed in October 2012, decided to change that. After quitting his job, moving the family to the Boston areaa hub for biotechnology researchand raising $17 million, he founded Solid Ventures. It's a for-profit company focused solely on Duchenne. It aims to step in where traditional drug companies sometimes won't go.

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"In rare diseasesand there are thousands of themwe find it difficult sometimes to substantiate the economic value, to justify for big companies to roll up their sleeves and jump right in," Ganot said. "What we're left with is a lot of patients that are left without drugs, and a lot of science that is not getting developed."

Eytani Ganot, a 4-year-old with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, has inspired his father, Ilan, to leave his hedge fund job and form a for-profit company working for a cure for the muscle-wasting disease.
Source: The Ganot Family
Eytani Ganot, a 4-year-old with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, has inspired his father, Ilan, to leave his hedge fund job and form a for-profit company working for a cure for the muscle-wasting disease.

Solidso named for the English translation of Eytani's name from Hebrewaims to take promising science out of labs or off pharmaceutical companies' shelves and advance it through development. The company has now made its first moves, delving into three initiatives to treat DMD in different ways.

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The first draws a pharmaceutical giant into the fray. Solid is collaborating with Pfizer to test one of its clinical assets, with plans to decide whether to move into human testing by early next year. Ganot declined to name the therapeutic area in which Pfizer had been focusing the drug, but said it may be possible to move directly to the mid-stages of clinical testing because enough is understood about the molecule.

Solid's second approach could be more transformative for DMDif it's successful. The company has formed a subsidiary focused on gene therapy called Solid GT, which "if it works changes the disease completely," Ganot said. "It's relevant for every patient."

Gene therapy involves inserting a gene into patients' cells, usually using a virus as a delivery method. Progress in the technology has been halting but has started to accelerate in recent years, with companies including Bluebird Bio and Sangamo showing some early success.

The Ganots at their home in Newton, Mass.
Source: The Ganot Family
The Ganots at their home in Newton, Mass.

Solid GT is guided by a scientific advisory board chaired by the University of Pennsylvania's James Wilson, Ganot said. Its goal is to take a smaller form of the gene dystrophinthe key to DMD, and also the largest known human geneand administer it to patients so it can help them make a smaller version of the protein important for muscle function, also called dystrophin.

Ganot said the company expects to be in human trials with the gene therapy approach within two years.

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The third initiative, called Solid Suit, focuses on preserving muscle function, "repurposing military technologies for the benefit of health care and patients with disabilities," Ganot said.

"DMD is a muscle-wasting disease, and when the muscle works, it gets wasted, basically, and doesn't regenerate like it does in healthy people," Ganot explained. "We believe that if we could preserve much of that muscle, when disease-modifying interventions like exon-skipping or gene therapy are introduced, the more muscle we have left, the better chances of an efficacious treatment."

Solid Venture's quest to fight DMD
Solid Venture's quest to fight DMD   

Exon-skipping is a technology being pursued by Sarepta Therapeutics and Prosensa, both aiming to file for approval of their drugs by the end of this year. Their medicines focus on treating specific mutations that drive DMD, and they're both starting with the one that affects the most patientsnot the one that Eytani has.

Solid's multiple approaches to one disease are part of its strategy to diversify its efforts to lower investment risk, Ganot said. They're also structured in ways that provide the most flexibility to the programs. Solid GT is a subsidiary, which "gives us better options in the future on partnering, raising specific money for a particular program, on discontinuing or funding some more," Ganot said.

"All three would help all patients," he said. As for his own son, Ganot said he's confident Solid will make a difference.

"We're aggressive, we raised enough money to do what we need to do, we have the right people, and very soon we'll have the right treatments, too."

—By CNBC's Meg Tirrell