Aug. 2, 2017

UCalgary researcher signs deal to develop nanomedicines for treatment of Type 1 diabetes

From lab to market: Pere Santamaria’s advice on innovation to commercialization

When Dr. Pere Santamaria arrived in Calgary in 1992 to join the Cumming School of Medicine, he never could have imagined he would make a groundbreaking discovery that would lead to a spinoff company. “When I arrived, I found out that the grant money I was expecting hadn’t come through,” says Santamaria, a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases. “So I had an empty lab with no research assistants and no salary. I had to beg my supervisor to give me $10,000 to start my research.”

Despite the rocky start, Santamaria has achieved something many scientists dream of — making a discovery that has practical applications for health care. Santamaria’s discovery revolves around the use of nanoparticles coated in proteins to treat autoimmune and inflammatory disorders.

“They can be modified for different diseases, such as Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis without compromising the entire immune system,” Santamaria explains. “Instead, they basically work to reset the immune system.”

Nanomedicine’s unique mechanism has the potential to disrupt the pharmaceutical industry entirely. Developing a new class of drugs is rare. With the assistance of Innovate Calgary, Santamaria started a company, Parvus Therapeutics Inc., to represent the technology and explore ways of bringing it to market. Announced in April 2017, Parvus entered into an exclusive deal with the Swiss pharma giant Novartis, hopefully leading to the development and commercialization of Parvus’s nanomedicine to treat Type 1 diabetes.

“It’s a good partnership,” Santamaria says. “Bringing a drug to market requires science as well as money.

“Supporting commercialization should be a top priority for all research,” he continues. “Our biggest responsibility is to the patients and making sure they have access to the medicine they need.” With that in mind, Santamaria shares his insight for other researchers who may be interested in bringing their discoveries from the lab bench to the market.

  1. Keep an open mind. “You never know when you’ll run into something great. It may be something you were never looking for that turns out to be important,” Santamaria says. “My first experiment at the University of Calgary was a failure, but I learned from that and my next one was a great success. You can either dump findings that don’t make sense, or you can try to find out why.”
  2. Consult a expert. “The objectives of research and commercialization are very different. Bringing a discovery to marketplace requires business expertise and the ability to raise funds that you might not have.” He credits Innovate Calgary as an excellent resource. “They helped me with all the things I knew nothing about: incorporating the company, our patent portfolio, chasing venture capital. Creating a company is a continuous snowball of challenges.”
  3. Be persuasive and believe in yourself. “I made a discovery I thought was important. Discovery was actually the easy part — it was convincing everyone else that was difficult,” says Santamaria. “When you have no credibility in developing drugs, you’ll need to work hard to help others see where you’re coming from. Address everyone’s questions and show them the biological base behind your findings. Don’t get too carried away, but you must have a vision and trust yourself.”
  4. Understand what pharmaceutical companies want. “The big pharmaceutical companies can partner with anyone they want. They can invest in any technology they want. There is lots of competition to get them to consider your drug. Pharmaceutical companies look very closely at projects they are considering investing in. They will do their due diligence, try to replicate your data in-house and examine all your findings. Their final decision to invest is based on the quality and depth of the research, the intellectual property agreements, and what’s happening in the broader market.”
  5. Examine your biases. “As scientists, we can tend to get very stuck on the idea of non-profits,” says Santamaria. “However, we may need to accept that nobody will be willing to invest in a drug if there is no opportunity to make money. It takes a lot of money to develop a drug, and the companies who have the resources will only invest to bring the drug to patients if they can make a profit.”
  6. Consider a new approach to your work. “I believe our job is to make discoveries, not publish papers. If we focus on making impactful discoveries, we will still publish papers anyway.”
  7. Have patience. “It takes a long time to bring a drug from the lab to the market.” Even after finding a pharmaceutical industry partner, the drug will still need to undergo manufacturing, testing, reviews by Health Canada and clinical trials.

If you’re interested in investigating spin-out opportunities, get in touch with Innovate Calgary, which offers mentors, coaching, business skill development programs, intellectual property services and other back-office support.

Throughout the years, Santamaria’s work has been funded by numerous organizations, including Diabetes Canada, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Diabetes Association, Foothills. He is a member of the Snyder Institute and associate member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. Santamaria named his company Parvus from the Greek word meaning small.