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.
“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, Esperion says, was safe and well tolerated by animals and was able to significantly lower LDL. The company is currently conducting a Phase II study of 176 human patients that will be completed in the fourth quarter this year. Esperion is also partnering with the Cleveland Clinic on heart-related therapies.
Esperion has attracted $23 million in venture capital from investors like Domain Associates, Alta Partners, and Aisling Capital, mostly based on Newton’s reputation.
Arboretum Ventures, based in Ann Arbor, MI, is also an investor, even though the company does not typically finance drug startups.
“It is an exception for us,” says Arboretum managing director Tim Peterson. “We invested because of Roger’s tremendous track record with Lipitor and the original Esperion, the great VC syndicate, and the promise of a lead compound to address cardiovascular disease.”
Esperion also wants to see if the same drugs can treat metabolic disorders like diabetes. People don’t die directly from diabetes but rather complications that result from diabetes, such as heart disease, Newton says.
In many ways, the new Esperion reflects how Newton’s approach to medicine and healthcare in general has evolved over the years.
Newton says he has come to realize that the body is an intricate tapestry where functions like cell metabolism and lipid regulation are closely interconnected. Doctors have traditionally treated diseases as separate silos. Instead, doctors should adopt an integrated approach to medicine that can treat or prevent multiple disorders at the same time, Newton says.
“We have long been in a reductionist mindset, where we have specialties in tissue and systems,” Newton says. “A functional, holistic approach is what we need to really to focus on in real detail and understand better. What’s this individual’s biochemistry profile telling us? How should we treat them? Is a statin the right drug for them?”
ETC-1002 could be a prevention therapy, not just a drug patients take after they develop cardiovascular disease or diabetes, Newton says. But in this holistic approach, lifestyle choices like diet and exercise also play a critical role, he says.
“We are now going to be really focused on not just the pharmacological part of it [but also diet],” he says. “I believe food is medicine. What we have done is polluted the human body with very unhealthy food we all have a tendency to eat, and not take care of ourselves.”
“I’m trying to connect the dots here,” he continued. “Pharma companies make money because they give people drugs to treat disease, not in all situations to promote overall health. What’s happened in the latest healthcare bill is that people should be held responsible for their own health, that prevention and wellness are the hallmarks of human health. That’s a whole different approach.”
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