Judging by some of the heavy action in the world of biotechnology, one could easily conclude that the industry is going to the dogs. Or cats, maybe.
There are start-ups named Nexvet and VetDC, CanFel Therapeutics (as in canine and feline), and even Fetch Pharma.
It’s a new example of pack behavior: Entrepreneurs with pedigrees from companies like Genentech and Amgen are now turning their attention to pets. They hope to develop innovative drugs for dogs and cats like those that have revolutionized the treatment of diseases like cancer and arthritis in people.
“We’ve been drugging ourselves for a long time and more recently we’ve been drugging our kids,” said Oleg Nodelman, an investor in and director of Kindred Biosciences, one of the new companies. “Why shouldn’t our pets have access to medicine?”
They do already, of course. Many of the big pharmaceutical companies have long had veterinary drug divisions. Eli Lilly’s animal division, Elanco, for instance, sells the company’s Prozac antidepressant under the name Reconcile to treat canine separation anxiety.
But the new entrepreneurs say they will be more nimble and do what the big companies are not doing, just as the early human medicine biotech companies did.
The big companies focus more on livestock — edible animals as opposed to petable ones, said Steven St. Peter, chief executive of Aratana Therapeutics, a pet biotech company. Their offerings for pets are mainly vaccines and treatments for fleas, ticks and worms.
The new companies hope instead to treat diseases like cancer and arthritis. Many are trying to develop monoclonal antibodies, which are proteins made in living cells. Such antibodies, like Humira for rheumatoid arthritis and Herceptin for breast cancer, are huge sellers in human medicine but have had almost no role so far in animal health.
“I was really a little struck by the fact that the biotechnology industry didn’t really participate in animal health at all,” said Dr. St. Peter, who was a life sciences venture capitalist before co-founding Aratana. “There was this very large industry that was ripe for innovation.”
Investors seem to be spurred in part by the interest generated by the huge initial public offering in early 2013 of Pfizer’s animal drug division, now called Zoetis. Since then both Aratana and Kindred have gone public, along with Phibro, which develops drugs for livestock, and Parnell, which sells both livestock and pet drugs. Funds like Adage Capital, Baupost, Fidelity and Wellington are investors in one or more pet drug companies.
The new companies say the time is right because people increasingly view pets as members of the family and are willing to spend thousands of dollars to treat a sick animal. Pets already can get chemotherapy, knee surgery and transplants.
Americans spend “over $800 million on Valentine’s Day and $400 million on Halloween for their pets,” said Dr. St. Peter.
Americans spent nearly $56 billion on pets in 2013, up 45 percent from 2006, according to the American Pet Products Association. Veterinary care, which includes prescription drugs, accounted for $14.4 billion, up more than 50 percent from 2006.
Moreover, there are already drugs for people that can be adapted to treat the animal versions of diseases like arthritis, cancer, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and various psychological problems.
Some experts, however, say the new companies, which have yet to commercialize any products, might be overly optimistic.
“There are not a lot of unmet needs that are out there in the veterinary drug field,” said Bob Fountain of Fountain Agricounsel, a consulting firm in animal health. “Those who have tried to apply principles from the human market to animal health have had to have some lessons learned.”
One challenge could be cost. Antibodies like Herceptin and Humira cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. The pet drug executives say they can get the cost down to several thousand dollars a year, in part because pets need smaller doses.
But even that is likely to be too much for many consumers. Only a few percent of American pet owners have health insurance for their animals.
Even a big-selling animal drug might have sales of only about $100 million a year, far less than the billions for a human blockbuster. But animal drugs can also be developed far more cheaply and quickly — for $10 million or less and in only a few years, executives say.
Kindred, for instance, hopes to apply for approval of its first drug by the end of the year, barely two years after the company started.
The drug is a beef-flavored chewable version of diacerein, a generic drug used in Europe but not the United States to treat arthritis in people. European regulators are moving to restrict use of the drug because of safety, but Kindred says that worrisome side effects, like liver damage, should occur less frequently in dogs.
Kindred was founded by Richard Chin, a Genentech alumnus who later ran OneWorld Health, a nonprofit organization developing drugs for neglected diseases in poor countries.
In some cases, human drugs can be used directly in animals. But in other cases they cannot. For instance, some pain relievers like ibuprofen cause severe side effects in cats.
Monoclonal antibodies developed for people would cause immune reactions if used in animals. Nexvet, a privately held Australian company that recently raised $31.5 million from American investment funds, has a method to “peticize” antibodies, just as antibodies developed in mice are “humanized” for use in people.
In some cases the entrepreneurs are motivated by illnesses to their own pets.
Jennie P. Mather, for instance, had just sold Raven Biotechnologies, a cancer antibody company she had founded, when her cat, Annie, died from gastric cancer that could not be treated.
“Here I was working to make cancer drugs with a process that could turn out dozens of possibilities a year,” she said. “And to go and be told, ‘Sorry, there is nothing we can do,’ it made me go and think hard.”
She started CanFel Therapeutics but was not able to raise money from venture capitalists. “I could tell within two minutes if the VC had a pet or not,” she recalled. “If they did, they would listen. If they didn’t, they would look at me as if this person is totally insane.”
CanFel turned to crowdfunding but raised only $16,800 out of the desired $87,000. But that was enough to buy lab equipment; the small staff is working without pay for now. Dr. Mather is hoping the reception that Aratana and Kindred have had on Wall Street will make it easier for CanFel to raise money once it has a candidate drug.VetDC was founded to take advantage of another trend: Pharmaceutical companies increasingly are testing their drugs on pets to get an early read on how the drug might work in people.
For instance, Gilead Sciences stopped work on a drug it was developing to treat lymphoma in people. But studies had already shown “beautiful data in people’s pets,” said Steven Roy, a former Amgen executive who runs VetDC. So VetDC is now developing that drug for lymphoma in dogs.
Some consolidation in the new industry has already begun. Aratana, which means “new” in Japanese, has acquired two other start-ups, Vet Therapeutics, which was developing antibodies, and Okapi, which was developing antiviral drugs.
Aratana already has conditional regulatory approval for two antibodies to treat lymphoma in dogs. They have the same mechanisms of action as the human drugs Rituxan and Campath. Aratana plans to start marketing one of them in October.
If the start-ups succeed, it might not be too long before established biotech companies form their own animal divisions. At least one company, Sorrento Therapeutics, recently announced it would do this.