CEO PERSPECTIVE: David Williams, CEO of Nanna Therapeutics
Nanna Therapeutics has built a unique and game-changing Totally Integrated Medicines Engine (TIME) to create novel therapeutics. Utilising its paradigm shift in the speed, efficiency and quality of drug discovery, as well as massively enhancing safety profiling to improve clinical success, Nanna Therapeutics is developing breakthrough medicines for the treatment of diseases that involve defects in mitochondrial function, such as MELAS and LHON, as well as diseases of the central nervous system, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Further information can be found at www.nannatherapeutics.com
Coulter:Pulse recently talked to David Williams, CEO of Nanna Therapeutics to learn more …
- What is your vision for Nanna Therapeutics?
David: One of the frustrations in our industry is the painfully slow pace of drug discovery and the time it takes to bring a drug to market. This hasn’t improved significantly over the last 30 to 35 years and with the odd exception, drug discovery productivity has shown a downward trajectory in terms of ROI. Our goal then and the reason for founding Nanna Therapeutics, is to address this and improve the speed of drug discovery. Our vision is to create drugs for anyone that needs them very quickly. It’s a simple vision and we have developed a proprietary platform that can achieve this.
For the non-scientist an analogy I use is around flour for baking. If we think of the pharmaceutical industry as a big bakery, they have a relatively tiny amount of flour with which to bake cakes. We on the other hand have invented a way of making an infinite quantity of flour with which to bake whatever cakes we want. Across the whole industry pharmaceutical companies have less than 20 million small molecules from which to launch a programme. Starting with 1 or 2 million compounds and using a very iterative and linear process of primary, secondary and tertiary screening, each company will attempt to identify the best compounds at successive triage steps. Our goal is to completely transform this process. Accessing billions of whichever molecules we want, we do all the necessary screening right at the very start and avoid the iterative process, to achieve a set of data within a few weeks sufficient to allow the creation of a new drug.
With such an enormous amount of data to sift through at a programme’s inception, human endeavour inevitably falls short and this is where Artificial Intelligence comes into play. Using advanced machine learning allows us to pick molecules that have a much better chance of having all the qualities we want before we even do anything with them. Using far fewer chemical synthesis cycles, we already have what pharmaceutical companies would recognise as an advanced lead within a few weeks. By comparison, it can take the general industry 5 to 10 years to put together a collection of just a few million new compounds.
Our platform is some 55,000 times smaller than a standard pharmaceutical screening platform and as well as occupying a small footprint, we use less of everything – fewer expensive reagents and fewer cells. As our platform uses such small quantities of starter material, we can perform high-throughput screening on cells isolated from a patient. If for example we are looking for a drug for an aggressive form of lymphoma, we can take 10- 20 lymphoma patients, screen their blood cells and find compounds that work in those patients. Not only can we find out which compounds work on those patient-derived cells, but at the same time all the data on whether they would make a good drug, including their pharmaceutical properties and toxicity profiles. It takes just a week to synthesise and screen them from scratch and only weeks of chemical refinement to arrive at a compound that could become a drug, achieving an enormous saving in time and resource.
We have recently embarked on a multi-target collaboration with Boehringer Ingelheim and are now generating a great deal of interest in our capabilities. Our next challenge is to continue growing in a sustainable way to achieve high value as a new pharmaceutical company.
- And how do you plan to do that?
Of course, the planets need to align for any business plan and ours is a highly detailed one. For the initial growth phase, we plan to work with only a select group of pharmaceutical companies in highly synergistic relationships. We can grow the platform with this finite group, developing strategic collaborations to extend our therapeutic reach. We select partners based on our business alignment and insist on having an interest in the drugs going forward in terms of downstream milestones and payments to ensure we are invested in their success. These partnered programmes are lower risk for us and balance against our internal programmes where we have 100% ownership. In this mixed risk model, we have carved out areas for our own specialisation. We are building our expertise on certain mechanisms which are associated with key developments in cells that dictate how they age. One of the big targets is mitochondria and being able to influence the role that mitochondria play in human health. This is an area where we are building specialist biology and chemistry expertise as well as development experience to keep us highly competitive.
- Have you got an idea of the sorts of talent you will need to realise your vision?
Indeed. It has been a phased growth so far and we are now moving from the discovery phase and getting ready for handover to development colleagues. We not only need to push our own compounds into development, but also help with our pharmaceutical collaborations, so development experience is always critical. Even if we’re focused on the discovery stage, we need development early on and we’ve been talking to clinicians and patients from the start of all of our internal programmes. Clinical input and the development experience that some of us have are both critical. It is important to recognise the direction in which we are heading and have the talent to enact on that route-map on a day-to-day basis as we grow.
The key for small companies is to find multi-talented individuals. A hierarchy of many layers doesn’t work for a biotech company and this is certainly not the model in successful US biotech companies. A flat structure is quite an advantage, where everyone takes full responsibility for their own output. If a development person is involved with the EMA, FDA, Chinese or other regulatory authorities, there needs to be a very tight discussion, without countless translations and the potential for mis-interpretation at each stage. In larger companies, there can sometimes be 4 or 5 layers between a developer and the authorities, leading to huge delays and consequent costs. Direct conversation makes everything quicker, easier and more efficient.
We will continue to need additional bioinformatics and informatics specialists as we grow. The quality and quantity of our data means we can take advantage of relatively standard and powerful off-the-shelf AI tools, helping recruitment in this area. We find it unproductive to separate the skills too much, especially the biologists and chemists as many companies have in the past. Most of our scientists or development specialists are very flexible and we’ve trained them to be multidisciplinary. Being able to produce medicines more quickly means we’ll be in the clinic more quickly which will allow us to ask more experimental clinical questions. It is important to get all the data from both healthy volunteers and patients that will maximize our effort in the area. Critical skills are around understanding the patient population, how to label the drug and intelligent trial design, ultimately dictates the size and nature of clinical trial and their location(s) to control how quickly we can get new drugs to patients
- What are the main challenges ahead?
As with all new technologies, there is a time lag before people see the full potential. There are always people who are sceptical and resist new technology. For small companies like ours, this is often the biggest challenge. Some things are so futuristic that people just don’t believe they could be possible. We were first asked to prove whether the science “works on the bench.” We have established this now and moved on with the Boehringer Ingelheim collaboration. But then people ask, “Where’s your first drug?” Then they want to know how it is working in the clinic, then our market size and the goal posts keep on moving. Some people will always want something more of any new technology. Our strategy is to control our own destiny with commercial success, so that we can focus on our goals to make a difference to patients without distraction.
- Which of the competition are you worried about?
We’re in a strong position and are initially seen in the same bracket as the DNA-encoded library technology companies. Our technology is vastly different, however, and vastly superior as it does functional and phenotypic screening, unlike DNA-encoded library technology. We can therefore rapidly find more drug-like molecules and so we’re in a very sweet spot competitively. Outside of the DELT competitive space, we are also present in others, such as age-related diseases. Initially, we’re focusing on mitochondrial disease, where there is urgent medical need, increasing interest from pharma companies, but very empty clinical pipelines. We predict it’ll become very attractive as new developments are few. The patents covering our intellectual property estate are strong and extensive, so give us good protection against competitors across multiple technological areas.
- Are there any other opportunities you foresee?
We could take this technology in so many directions, but we are being very focussed with it so far. We could revolutionize the chemical industry or the agri-chem industry for example. We see Nanna Therapeutics, however, as a therapeutics company generating drugs. There will be opportunities to spin out other companies and this is part of our longer-term strategy, as we validate in various areas.
One of the frustrations for Life Sciences in the UK, is that it’s been traditionally difficult to find the backers to build big companies here, despite the plethora of new ideas and good availability of excellent staff. This does contrast to the quite different situation in Boston or San Francisco, for example, where everyone wants to build high value companies with support from the more mature investment base and the appropriate capital markets but suffers from fierce competition for good staff. We have the ambition and potential to be another Genentech or Celgene and believe we have a commercial path forward and are in the right location to achieve this through outstanding science success in all stages of our company’s growth.