Solace Pharma Closes Boston-Area Office After Pain Treatment Fails in Clinical Trial

2/8/10

Solace Pharmaceuticals has quietly shuttered its office in Cambridge, MA, near the team of biologists and venture capitalists who formed the startup in 2006 to develop new treatments for pain, company CEO Eliot Forster confirmed for Xconomy.

The firm, which has raised $15 million in venture capital, is now operating from its remaining office in Canterbury, UK, Forster says. Three full-time employees in Boston were let go, but two of them have remained involved in the startup as consultants. The company now has four full-time employees and will continue its strategy of relying heavily on consultants and contract research organizations to support its operations, Forster says.

Solace closed its office at Four Cambridge Center in late November, after it learned during the previous month that its lead anti-pain pill failed in a mid-stage clinical trial, according to Forster. The drug, dubbed SLC022, was intended to treat a painful complication of shingles called post-herpetic neuralgia. But the Phase IIa clinical trial, which enrolled 154 patients, showed that the oral drug was not significantly more effective in treating pain than a placebo (which is commonly a sugar pill).

The drug was the most advanced of the company’s pipeline of small molecules for blocking cellular proteins involved in pain responses. The company’s founders include a team of prominent pain biologists led by Clifford Woolf, the director of neurobiology at Children’s Hospital in Boston, who discovered the role of a gene called “GCH1″ in pain. The gene encodes the production of a protein that is abundant in people suffering from pain, and the firm is researching molecules that can inhibit those proteins to ease peoples’ aches.

Woolf teamed with Boston’s PureTech Ventures in 2006 to form Solace. Forster, a former Pfizer executive, joined the startup as CEO when it closed its $15 million Series A round in April 2007, with investments from PureTech, Waltham, MA-based Polaris Venture Partners, and InterWest Partners of Menlo Park, CA and Dallas. Solace is still working closely with Woolf and the firm’s other founders here, the CEO says. The firm’s Boston-area board members include Daphne Zohar, founder and managing director of PureTech, and Kevin Bitterman, a principal at Polaris.

“We’re an international company,” Forster says, “but our heart and soul remains in Boston.”

The firm has no other products in clinical trials, Forster says, but it has backup programs with molecules that are showing promise in pre-clinical studies, he says. The company is considering options to advance its remaining experimental pain treatments, including raising more venture capital and forming a corporate partnership.

A big plus for Solace is the need for more effective pain treatments. One opportunity in this multibillion-dollar market is the push to find alternatives to opioid painkillers, which sometimes don’t work and can lead to serious addictions and decreased respiratory function.

Meantime, Forster is embracing a highly virtual business model for the startup. He says that the firm is able to operate with a lean staff because it works with 46 consultants who operate all over the globe. In his previous job as head of European development for New York-based drug giant Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), Forster says, he grew comfortable with this model after evaluating the use of outside consultants and contract research organizations (CROs) to provide services from chemistry research to sales and other duties. (Last week I wrote about why virtual business models make sense for some biotech firms.)

“When I left [Pfizer],” Forster says, “my assessment of the business was that there would be sufficient quality, if it was managed properly, in CROs and through consultants and individuals, who are willing to work on a part-time basis, to run a company.”

Last week Forster was in Boston for a Solace board meeting, and he plans to continue to travel back and forth between England and Boston on a regular basis for company business. And it appears that while the company no longer has a physical presence in Boston, its virtual network of founders, investors, and consultants here is very much intact.

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