Sirtris’ Westphal Enjoying Life Under GSK Ownership; Hints at Positive Human Data on Next-Gen Drugs to Extend Healthy Life (and Still Partying on Fridays)

9/18/08

Sirtris is now part of pharmaceutical behemoth GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK), but the British giant has allowed its acquisition a unique dose of autonomy since it bought the small, Cambridge, MA-based biotech in June for $720 million. For those who still haven’t heard, Sirtris is known around the world for the dazzling potential of its drugs to lengthen healthy human lifespan. Christoph Westphal, CEO of Sirtris, says his company will have some exciting news to share next month about the first human tests of its next-generation drugs—which will likely make it even better-known. Yet, when I caught up with him last week, the news about its trials was just one of several insights Westphal shared about what’s been brewing at Sirtris this summer.

Xconomy: What are the perks of Big Pharma ownership?

Christoph Westphal: There’s actually a lot of perks. I think the most important one is we think it is much more likely we’re going to get a drug to market than it was before. And there are several reasons for that. We have a budget that we’ve just been given for the next three years, which is 30 to 50 percent greater than we could have afforded as an independent company. Secondly, we have an opportunity to leverage global GSK, so there’s a lot of skill sets and abilities and machines and scale-up capabilities. It’s literally dozens and dozens of things that we never could have done on our own that we can now do as part of GSK.

X: What makes Sirtris unique from other biotechs acquired by Big Pharma?

CW: Both GSK and we were interested in keeping Sirtris independent and autonomous, which is why we’ve retained our name, we’ve retained our management structure [no more board of directors anymore, of course], we had a strong incentive to retain our employees, which we’ve done, and really almost all decisions are made almost exactly the same way they were before. That may be a little bit different than some acquisitions, where quickly the company was no longer autonomous. Literally, there’s no one here from GSK, five months after we announced the acquisition. And they’ve been very hands-off in all of our decisions. I think they are very smart and careful and thoughtful. So we pitched them on what our three-year plan is, but they are basically funding us like venture guys would fund us or public market folks would fund us, saying, ‘Day-to-day decisions are totally up to you, but we do expect in the next several years you to generate significant value,’ which I think is fair.

X: How long do you plan to stay with Sirtris?

CW: GSK asked for my commitment for the longer term, and as part of the acquisition I gave up my forward vesting. I got the same deal for myself as I did for every employee at the company, even though my contract had a guaranteed full forward vesting. I thought it was important as a signal to GSK and to the employees to indicate that I was committed to making this company successful as part of GSK. [See Wade's post for more on Westphal's deal with GSK.]

X: What has changed about Sirtris’ drug pipeline?

CW: It’s broader—given that we have a lot more resources, and we’ve been fortunate to have positive clinical results with both SRT501, which is our formulation of resveratrol [a natural chemical with metabolic benefits, found in grapes and other foods], and with our new chemical entities [NCEs] that are 1,000 times more potent than resveratrol. We had very nice PK [pharmacokinetic] data and safety data, so we have very aggressive plans to do several phase II studies next year on our NCEs and progressing our compounds much more broadly into different indications. And we’re also much more focused on additional targets. So we’ve always articulated that SIRT3 [an enzyme linked to cellular health] was an interesting target to us. We are much more aggressively pursuing that than we were previously. So those are all things that would have been harder to do as an independent company.

X: When do you expect to reveal results of the Phase 2a for SRT501 in type 2 diabetes?

CW: We’ve kind of stuck with our timelines that we had as a public company. We’ve reported positive top-line data from our Phase 1b study at conferences, and we’re planning to publish a paper on those results. That’s in hundreds of patients with positive effects on glucose and insulin, and we hope to be able to publish those and have them come out in the next six months. The Phase IIa study of [SRT]501 in diabetics we hope to present initial data in the first half of next year. And then the human PK data on our 1,000-times-more-potent molecules, unrelated to resveratrol, we hope to [reveal] some of the preliminary data on October 22 at our Boston R&D conference.

X: What are the drawbacks of Big Pharma ownership?

CW: To date, I’ve got to say it’s been great. GSK has done everything it could have, and it’s been a fantastic experience. You know, we’re part of a bigger company. It’s normal when you’re part of a bigger company for some decisions to take more time.

X: How successful has Sirtris been in retaining its workers?

CW: It’s amazing. I think most every employee here feels the same as [Sirtris scientific founder] David Sinclair and I did, which is, if we’re right, it’s probably going to be the most important thing we do in our lives. We’re talking about potentially extending healthy human lifespan by 10 to 20 percent. If we’re right about the science, it’s pretty hard to imagine that we’ll ever work on anything as important. So that, combined with a personal commitment to GSK, which is a great partner, has led to very low turnover.

X: Does Sirtris still have happy hour for employees on Friday afternoons?

CW: Yes. You should come down here on Friday. We either have a band here or announcements. We probably have the best selection of beer in Boston.

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