Making an Impact

Dr. Eric Dupont was 15 when he started working in his uncle's lab in Quebec City. His uncle, Dr. André Dupont, was an internationally renowned scientist and co-discoverer of an anti-hormonal therapy for prostate cancer. It was in this lab, summer after summer, that Dupont gained an understanding of hormonal-dependent cancer--an understanding that would help him when he founded his own company, Aeterna Laboratories, just 10 years later at the age of 25.

Today, Dupont is just 10 months away from finding out if his discovery and the company's lead product, the angiogenic inhibitor Neovastat, is successful in Phase III trials for the treatment of kidney cancer. Positive results would bring him one step closer to his dream: making a major scientific impact. That is, after all, the reason he got involved in biotech--he wanted to make a major scientific impact like his uncle. The only difference is he didn't want to take 25 years to do it.

Dupont founded and became CEO of Aeterna in 1991. He was completing a PhD in physiology-endocrinology and a certificate in business administration at Laval University at the same time--doing "three things at once," he recalls. He also completed post-doctoral studies in neuroendocrinology at the Research Centre of the Notre-Dame Hospital in Montreal.

During his studies, Dupont was the recipient of a fellowship from the Medical Research Council of Canada, and had the opportunity to work with some very prestigious scientists. Instead, he decided to start Aeterna, much to the disappointment of his uncle, who wanted him to remain in academia and garner experience from well-regarded labs.

"It just reflects the mindset 10 years ago of academics and physicians, that going into the pharma industry or biotech, which was virtually unknown, was not the nicest thing a scientist or physician could do," he explains.

Dupont, however, had an idea he believed in and thought that he could make an impact faster if he took the industry route. Aeterna, in fact, was based on a hypothesis. Dupont had no data from his academic research because the work he was doing in his post-doc was completely different. Nor was Aeterna a university spinoff, which was the typical model for biotech start-ups. It was, simply and plainly, a hypothesis.

"We started with nothing--[just] a white sheet in front of us with a hypothesis only, and with virtually no money," he explains.

The hypothesis: angiogenesis--the formation of new blood vessels--is the "common denominator" for many diseases. It's not the cause of the diseases, but rather, it complicates them, he explains. If you could control angiogenesis, you could potentially control the disease, he hypothesized.

The result was Neovastat. It is meant to treat diseases complicated by angiogenesis, which is implicated in the development of more than 20 diseases, including cancer, psoriasis and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Early studies showed that Neovastat is successful in treating psoriasis and AMD as well as cancer. In fact, the company has 12 U.S. patents for Neovastat, covering 30 different indications. But Aeterna couldn't support clinical trials for all of the indications. Therefore, Dupont and his team made a strategic decision to focus on cancer for the time being, because it is a life-threatening disease. Once Neovastat is ready to hit the market for cancer treatment, they plan to go back for the other indications.

Neovastat is indeed moving through the pipeline. Aside from being in Phase III trials for the treatment of kidney cancer, it is also in Phase III for the treatment of lung cancer and multiple myeloma--a type of blood cancer. Final results from the company's Phase III study on lung cancer will be announced in 2005, while the results for its Phase II trial for multiple myeloma will be announced at the beginning of 2003.

It has taken 11 years to get to this point; however, it only took a year for Dupont to generate the data to prove to his uncle, who passed away in the early 1990s, that he knew what he was doing.

Convincing investors to believe in a 25-year-old and his dream was another issue altogether. Fortunately for Dupont, the company did not rely on investors in the early days, he explains. Instead, it used a different model--the company generated its own cash. Aeterna was founded with three divisions: cosmetic, nutrition and pharma. It relied on the nutrition and cosmetic divisions to make money by developing and then selling its active ingredients to multinational companies. This approach generated millions in sales and profits, which helped to pay for the development of Neovastat in the company's pharmaceutical division.

The company was financially autonomous from 1991 to 1997, says Dupont. And because of that, he and his team were able to bring Neovastat through preclinical, Phase I and II, and at the same time, bring the company public in December of 1995.

When it was time to look for investments from outsiders, Dupont says it was difficult, but his age had nothing to do with it.

"Honestly, [age] doesn't matter. It's always difficult, especially when you have an early project," he says. He adds that you have to convince people that you and your company are worth their investment. "If you have the right argument, in time you should be able to convince those people."

In 2000, the cosmetic and nutrition divisions of Aeterna were spun off into Atrium Biotechnologies (also based in Quebec City). Atrium recently acquired a company in France, and now its cosmetics ingredients and food supplements are available in 20 countries throughout the world.

"At the beginning it was a financial tool that became in fact a real international corporation," he says.

But how do you know when it's time to create a subsidiary? Dupont explains that when Neovastat was about to enter Phase III, the company decided that it would grow more successfully as two corporations with separate management teams. Dupont's brother Luc, an accountant, now leads the management team for the cosmetic and nutrition division, which spun off into Atrium. This allowed Dupont and Aeterna to focus on bringing Neovastat to the market and hiring professionals experienced in managing Phase III trials.

If the Phase III results are positive, the next challenge for Aeterna is to get regulatory approval for Neovastat, and continue to grow the company through acquisitions. Over the last 12 months they've been looking worldwide for a cancer-focused company to acquire, and they hope to execute their first scientific transaction by the end of the year. It is in instances like this, he says, that having both a science and business background is useful.

"I'm personally actively involved in that process, and the business skills of course help a lot to structure the deal and speak with the accountant, the lawyer and others," he says. "I believe if you want to be a CEO in medical biotech, you need the two backgrounds."

But even with the two backgrounds, starting a company is an educational experience, he says, especially where recruiting professionals is concerned. Building an experienced management team is the most difficult part of starting a biotech company, explains Dupont. And the key is, if you think you may not have the right people, make changes before something happens, "before getting into trouble." If you don't have the right management team with the right skills, you'll never succeed, he says.

In the beginning, Dupont split the role of CEO with his brother, Luc. However, Dupont took on the role of CSO, and was responsible for the development of the product and the corporation, while Luc was responsible for operations and finance. What started as a team of three--Dupont, his brother and a biochemist--has grown to a team of 200 (130 for Aeterna and 70 for Atrium).

"It's a very exciting experience. And that's kept me and the group motivated," says Dupont. "The product we're (developing) could make a difference and save someone's life or hopefully it will enhance their life, improve their life expectancy. And that is a strong motivator."

As for Dupont's future, he doesn't want to think past getting Neovastat to the market. He would prefer to concentrate on the present. He wants to focus on his major scientific impact, and doesn't want to think about what is next until he achieves that goal. "No distractions," he says. He's keeping his eyes on the prize.

This article first appeared in the September 2002 issue of Biotechnology Focus and is reprinted with permission from Promotive Communications Inc.

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