Dave Martin is one of the people in biotech who has truly seen it all. In the ’80s, the industry’s early days, he was head of R&D at Genentech. His latest passion, which he’s pursuing with business partner Jim Knighton, is taking shape at a lean startup in South San Francisco called AvidBiotics.
Their wager is that this small company could shake up more than one industry, starting with food safety and antibiotics.
“Jim and I are betting our future on this, financially and professionally,” Martin says. “It’s taken us several years to develop the level of confidence we have, and it’s really built on data and successes so far. We think we can make this into a significant entity.”
Fighting bacteria has been on Martin’s mind for years; he learned about the field in detail while on the board of a leading antibiotics company, Lexington, MA-based Cubist Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CBST). While antibiotics are one of the great medical success stories of the 20th century, they are now chronically overprescribed and bacteria are becoming continually more resistant to treatment. A few biotech companies like Cubist have had some recent success in developing new small-molecule compounds that are effective against multi-drug resistant bacteria. Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 70 percent of hospital-borne infections are resistant to one or more classes of antibiotics. An estimated 90,000 people die from bacterial infections every year, and the infections costs the health system $4.5 billion annually.
All this got Martin, a biochemist, thinking about a different strategy a few years ago. After selling South San Francisco-based Eos Biotechnology for a little more than $37 million in 2003, Martin started looking around the academic world for novel ideas. He found an intriguing concept in the lab of Jeffrey F. Miller at UCLA, which was looking at defense mechanisms that certain bacteria use naturally to fight off other bugs. With some seed money from his own pocket, and from friends and family, Martin rolled up his sleeves to see if he and his collaborators could engineer what are known as R-type pyocins (now branded by the company as Avidocins) that could mimic this natural phenomenon.
Ideally, these engineered proteins could be made to hit specific molecular targets on the surface of bacterial cells, punch holes in the cells, and kill them with a single strike, Martin says. In particular, the proteins could be made to bind to target molecules that the pathogen needs to cause disease, so that even if the bacterium found a way to resist the killing power of the Avidocin, it would basically be harmless, Martin says.
“If the bug gains resistance, it loses virulence. That is the primary technology we have developed,” Martin says. “And we have IP around it.”
The company really got going in 2005, when Martin called Knighton. They knew each other well, having worked together earlier in their careers when they … Next Page »