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A biotech CEO’s favorite ‘F’ word

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Who’s the boss? For SFA Therapeutics’ CEO and co-founder Ira Spector it’s patients, and his sights are set on changing the course of treatment for chronic inflammatory disease.

A 30-year industry veteran with extensive drug development expertise running clinical trials at Wyeth (now part of Pfizer), Allergan and ICON, Spector could be sitting comfortably on a beach somewhere. But he said retirement is overrated.

“I tried to retire twice and hated it both times,” he said. “There’s so much unmet need out there that I just couldn’t feel comfortable retiring. Do I try to go to the beach? Sure. Do I try and relax? Sure. But I’ve discovered that I just can’t. I’m wired to do this.”

Wired indeed — Spector has overseen more than 500 clinical trials and 34 NDAs during his career. His latest venture, SFA Therapeutics, boasts a “completely new approach to drug discovery and development.” That’s a pretty bold statement, but Spector believes he and his co-founders are onto something special: a development platform that intersects chronic inflammation and cancer.

“We call ourselves a fourth-generation microbiome company,” Spector explained. “We’re not first generation, which is fecal transplant. We’re not doing probiotics, which we don’t think get to the targets that do any good. We’re not doing bacterial colonies, which we think requires personalized medicine. We are using substances that are created by bacteria in the body and figuring out how to turn those into drugs. We’ve discovered that these substances have exquisitely important roles in modulating the immune system.”

Because the science relies on “bacterial metabolites” found in humans, there is no genotoxicity, which can lead to faster clinical development and safer treatments.

“The platform was so compelling and different (from) anything else out there, it demanded we build a company around it,” Spector said.

The SFA of SFA Therapeutics

Spector met Mark Feitelson — the “F” of SFA — by chance at a luncheon in 2015. During the course of their conversation, Feitelson shared that he had co-developed a drug to “block the progression of hepatitis B to liver cancer,” but he couldn’t find a taker.

“I told him, ‘I’ve been in drug development for 30 or so years. I’ll come to your lab and look at your data,’” Spector recalled.

After visiting the lab, Spector was impressed by the data supporting Feitelson’s science, which targets a “master switch in key pathways involved in inflammation and cancer.” Buoyed by the results, Spector knew Feitelson was onto something big.

“(Feitelson’s) data showed outstanding results in transgenic animals — half the animals developed no liver cancer and the other half developed tiny tumors — a profound effect,” he said.

Spector recognized that the potential of Feitelson’s findings could extend well beyond cancer.

“Do I try to go to the beach? Sure. Do I try and relax? Sure. But I’ve discovered that I just can’t. I’m wired to do this.”

Ira Spector

CEO, co-founder, SFA Therapeutics

“I told him he has a platform I could pick targets (from) and match to different diseases,” Spector said.

The next step was to prove the science based on human models. Enter the “A” in SFA: Alla Arzumanyan. As Feitelson’s co-inventor, Azrumanyan got to work on the translational research. A year later, SFA Therapeutics was born.

Now six years in, SFA has identified six small molecule drug candidates from this platform, including drugs for major indications such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, IBS and more.  Altogether, the company is examining the potential of 85 different chronic inflammatory disease targets.

“Imagine drugs that are developed from substances found in the human body, substances that have evolved with humans over eons and that have no carcinogenicity, that have very low side effects and without which, we can’t function,” Spector said. “We discovered that patients who have a number of autoimmune diseases lack these substances or don’t make them properly, because they often have GI issues as well as their underlying autoimmune disease. But if we provide these microbiomes as a drug, which is not so simple, by the way, then we can have a profound effect on patients, just like insulin is provided to Type 1 diabetics, because they can’t make them internally.”

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