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Amplyx Pharmaceuticals, Led By Women, Builds Platform for Improving Drugs for HIV, Cancer

Sometimes a company only raises a small sum of money, but it attracts our attention because it involves interesting people and a potentially big idea. That was true last week when I profiled Avelas Biosciences, the latest startup from UCSD Nobel laureate Roger Tsien, and it’s true this week of another small company in San Diego—Amplyx Pharmaceuticals.

Amplyx appeared on our radar a couple weeks ago when it raised $1.5 million from Golden Seeds, a national angel group that invests in companies led by women, with additional support from Life Science Angels and Tech Coast Angels. The CEO is Elaine Heron, the former CEO of LabCyte, a sales and marketing veteran at Applied Biosystems, and a board member at Novato, CA-based BioMarin Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: BMRN). Another prominent businesswoman, Mary Lake Polan of Stanford University School of Medicine, and a former director of Wyeth, joined Amplyx as a board observer.

This company is still in its early days, but the idea is a big one—take an existing small molecule that has been shown to be active against a certain disease like HIV, and improve it in a critically important way. About half of all drugs on the market today have some kind of Achilles heel—maybe it isn’t absorbed well enough, doesn’t get wide enough distribution in various tissues, gets metabolized too quickly to be truly effective, or isn’t excreted in an ideal way. Amplyx, through a trick of chemistry, attaches a small organic linker to the existing drug to create a new molecule with whatever new property is desired. The new drug ought to be safe, and, importantly, it is a new entity that can be patented, Heron says.

Elaine Heron

Elaine Heron

None of this work has yet advanced into clinical trials, so we have no way of knowing whether this will work in human beings. But one way of reducing the immense risks of drug development is by starting with an established drug that has already cleared the FDA’s safety hurdles.

“I think this is going to work,” Heron says. “I’ve seen a lot of drug development platforms, and I’ve been selling to people in the space for a long time. This made sense to me.”

Of course, there are some men in key roles at this company, too. I spoke to Heron along with Amplyx’s co-founder and chief scientific officer Mitchell Mutz. The Amplyx technology has its origins with work done by Mutz and a pair of pathologists—Gerald Crabtree of Stanford University and Jason Gestwicki of the University of Michigan.

Amplyx’s lead project, as hinted above, is to create a better drug for HIV. There are some very effective protease inhibitor drugs on the market that have made HIV a chronic disease for many people in the U.S. But one of the drawbacks is that such drugs don’t last long enough in the bloodstream, and need to be taken in combination with a booster compound from Abbott Laboratories called ritonavir. That extra drug adds cost, complexity, and can cause some nausea.

If Amplyx has done its early chemistry correctly, it may be able to help patients ditch the ritonavir. The scientists have modified a protease inhibitor drug so that … Next Page »

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