Pulmatrix, Emerging From Stealth Mode, Makes Aerosols to Kill Flu and Bacterial Bugs in the Lungs
If a global flu pandemic strikes, public health officials might someday turn to a company emerging from stealth mode called Pulmatrix. The Lexington, MA-based biotech firm is gearing up for its next steps, hoping to show in clinical trials that its inhalable aerosols can prevent any number of viral and bacterial invaders from making people really sick, while also making it much less likely that patients will spread the bugs around.
I got the overview on the Pulmatrix technique from John Hanrahan, who was just hired away from Sepracor (NASDAQ: SEPR) to become the startup company’s chief medical officer. He has loads of experience with drugs for chronic respiratory diseases, having worked on the development of Brovana and Xopenex at Sepracor. He joins a well-known cast of players associated with Pulmatrix, including Robert Langer of MIT, David Edwards of Harvard University, and venture capitalists from Polaris Venture Partners and 5AM Ventures.
This is truly a technology that has big potential, if it’s half as good as the company thinks. Pulmatrix isn’t working on a conventional antiviral drug that kills a specific invader, or an antibiotic that can kill bacteria deep in the lungs. The Pulmatrix method should work for all sorts of pathogens, Hanrahan says. That’s because it takes positively-charged ion-based compounds, such as calcium and magnesium, made into an aerosol, that would be sprayed into the lungs. The idea is that the compounds will change the viscosity of mucus that lines the lungs, essentially making it stickier, so that it can diminish the penetration of bacteria and viruses in the lungs. That should also greatly diminish the production of disease-carrying particles that people breathe out when they are sick, which causes these bugs to spread, Hanrahan says.
“This has the potential for widespread application,” he says. “If you can decrease the transmission or severity of flu, even with episodic use, there’s a lot of upside potential here.”
Like anything in biotech, the proof is in the pudding. So far, Pulmatrix has results from four species of animals to support its claims, and has started an early-stage clinical trial to demonstrate safety. The company is still working on different delivery modes, such as a nebulizer (to deliver a mist to the lungs) that might require frequent dosing, or maybe a more convenient single-puff inhaler. Studies so far suggest that the treatment ought to be safe, and not make mucus so thick that it can’t be removed, which, if you need to clear your throat, can be bad.
The next step will be Phase II clinical trials next year to see what difference the inhaled drugs can make for the common adenovirus and influenza, Hanrahan says. If the company succeeds there, it could set its sights on fragile, elderly patients who are vulnerable to infections, like those with emphysema and chronic bronchitis, or younger people with cystic fibrosis. Of course, if it shows any degree of success in people with a treatment like this, Pulmatrix will go from stealth mode to high profile in a hurry.