I had an interesting chat yesterday with Jose Maria Fernandez Sousa, chairman of Spanish biotech company Zeltia and president of the Spanish biotech association, ASEBIO. The parent company has been around since the 1930s, but in the late 1980s began a move into marine biology, searching the oceans for marine compounds that could form the basis for pharmaceuticals. Zeltia’s PharmaMar subsidiary launched Yondelis in Europe in 2007.
Fernandez explained the strategy to me:
“We decided it was not a good idea to compete directly with what the big pharmas were doing. So we decided to do things differently and take risks. The first thing we did was to look at the oceans for marine organisms. There was a rationale. Nature has provided us with excellent medicines including penicillin, salicylic acid, and many anti-cancer drugs. But all of these are from terrestrial sources: roots, leaves, soil bacteria, fungi. None are of marine origin. Even though 80 percent of the species from our planet are of marine origin, nobody had looked at them in a systematic way. So we saw an opportunity.”
“There was a second thing we did to differentiate ourselves. As we were finding very potent new chemical entities we decided to bring into clinical trials only those that worked with a novel mechanism of action to kill cancer cells.”
“Today we can say our strategy has proven successful because we have a drug on the market, approved by the European Medicines Agency for soft tissue sarcoma and ovarian cancer. We have licensed it in the United States to Ortho Biotech –a part of J&J– while PharmaMar has reserved marketing rights in Europe.”
Zeltia has a number of interesting businesses besides PharmaMar:
- Noscira, a biotech company focusing on Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases
- Genomica, a molecular diagnostics company
- Sylentis, an RNAi company
- Zelnova and Xylazel, both of which are consumer chemical companies
Zeltia has high hopes that its PharmaMar subsidiary will enjoy rapid growth now that Yondelis is gaining entry into more large markets. The company has opened an office in New York City to act as its US beachhead. It’s headed by industry veteran Roberto Weinmann.
I’m impressed by Zeltia, especially its ability to go all the way from concept to market. That’s something one rarely sees in the pharmaceutical industry these days –in big pharma or biotech. Zeltia’s success is a nice exception to the weak pipelines that characterize most of the industry. Welcome to America.March 24, 2010