Edimer, Third Rock’s Bet on Rare Diseases, Aims to Begin First Human Tests

3/15/11

Edimer Pharmaceuticals wants to break new ground in the treatment of patients with an ultra-rare genetic disorder called X-linked hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia, or XLHED. And the small venture-backed operation based in Cambridge, MA, is tapping the talents of some of the area’s rare disease veterans to try to pull it off.

The firm, with primary financial backing from Third Rock Ventures in Boston, has been laying the foundation for its hoped-for clinical trials for more than a year. Edimer has been doing various studies in hopes of asking regulators for permission to begin initial human trials of a protein-based drug for XLHED in the second half of this year, company CEO Neil Kirby says. The treatment has the potential to be the first drug specifically for the disorder.

A severe disease, it can cause patients to have few and pointed teeth, sparse hair, and thin skin. Most prevalent in boys, the disease can rob them of their ability to sweat when they need to prevent their bodies from overheating, among other symptoms. (Charles Darwin, having seen people with the disease in the late-1800s during a trip to what is now Pakistan, described them as “the toothless men of Sind.”) It can also lead to frequent pulmonary infections because patients lack the ability to produce enough mucus to clear infectious invaders from their lungs. The infections can be fatal.

There are only about 1,000 new cases of the disease diagnosed in the U.S. and Europe per year, according to Kirby. He certainly knows what it’s like to pursue a market like that, given his prior executive experience at Lexington, MA-based Shire Human Genetic Therapies (formerly Transkaryotic Therapies) from 2002 to 2007. The scant incidence of XLHED places it in a category of ailments that some call “ultra-orphan” diseases. One advantage: Kirby says that he knows of no other group that is developing a treatment for the disorder. Lack of competition also means there’s likely to be strong demand for any effective new therapy for this condition.

Cambridge, MA-based Genzyme (NASDAQ:GENZ), for example, has made billions of dollars selling rare disease drugs that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for each patient who takes them. Shire HGT, Kirby’s former employer, is a fast-growing unit of Dublin-based Shire and brought in more than $900 million in revenue last year from sales of a handful of rare disease drugs. Both Shire and Genzyme have developed drugs for the rare genetic disorders known as Fabry and Gaucher diseases.

While patients with those rare diseases have multiple treatments that target their disorders, those with X-linked hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia haven’t been so fortunate. To control their body temperatures, and to compensate for the fact that their disease inhibits the development of sweat glands, people with the illness wear cooling vests and have to restrict their exposure to heat. (Imagine having to tell your child that he or she has to stay indoors on a beautiful, yet hot, summer day.) They might also opt to get dental implants, which often require reconstructive surgery to their jaws.

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