With Esperion Reboot, Lipitor Co-Discoverer Roger Newton Pushes For Therapy Beyond Drugs

5/25/11Follow @xconomy

A few years ago, I went to see my doctor for a routine check-up. Blood tests showed I had a high count of low density lipoids (LDL), the so-called “bad cholesterol” that clogs arteries and causes heart attacks.

“I’m prescribing you a statin,” the doctor said.

I hesitated.

“Uh….shouldn’t I try diet and exercise first?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure,” he replied, rather nonchalantly.

I did buy the drug but never took it. Normally, I would follow a doctor’s orders. He was the professional, right? But I was 31 years old, no family history of heart attacks, and exhibited excellent blood pressure.

I couldn’t help but recount this story recently to Roger Newton, CEO of Esperion Therapeutics in Plymouth, MI. Dr. Newton was the co-discoverer of Lipitor, the blockbuster anti-cholesterol drug made by Pfizer that gave birth to the multi-billion dollar statin industry.

“There is a tendency to just go ahead and prescribe the drug,” Newton says. “I know that for a fact. I think it behooves you to at least try [diet and exercise]. But that doesn’t add to the revenues of the pharma companies.”

He continued, “People like you who are 31 years old should really try to change your lifestyle and really be committed to that for the rest of your life. You may have to go on the drug later on, but right now you might be able to lower LDL to a normal level just by changing your diet. You should test that.”

For a guy who’s made a lot of money from Big Pharma, Newton’s advice was surprising. A former executive with Warner Lambert/Parke-Davis, which Pfizer later purchased, he chaired the drug discovery team that created Lipitor, the most prescribed drug in the world.

Newton co-founded Esperion in 1998 and then sold the company to Pfizer for $1.3 billion, one of the most successful exits in Michigan history.

After Pfizer decided to shut down the company, Newton acquired some intellectual property and restarted Esperion in 2008 . The startup is developing drugs to combat cardiovascular disease and diabetes by boosting high density lipoids (HDL), the so-called “good cholesterol.”

Pfizer’s acquisition of Esperion was “all well and good and people became wealthy and everything, but we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish, which was to have some sort of HDL therapy out there in the marketplace.”

Statins like Lipitor focus on lowering LDL in the blood, preventing plaque from clogging the arteries. However, Newton says, research has shown that boosting HDL levels can help the body remove cholesterol through the liver. Esperion is trying to create drugs that can do both.

“It’s kind of a double whammy effect,” Newton says. “The story of LDL has been pretty much been told. HDL is starting to catch up. It’s the next frontier.”

Earlier this month, the company released pre-clinical data of its lead drug candidate, ETC-1002. The drug, … Next Page »

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