Treating kidney disease compared with other diseases in 2019 may evoke thoughts of the Dark Ages for some patients and doctors, according to Tom Frohlich.
That is to say, it feels like an eternity ago.
“It’s a lot like where cancer treatment was 30 years ago,” said the chief business officer at Chinook Therapeutics Inc., adding that most treatments are focused on addressing high blood pressure or controlling patients’ diabetes rather than the disease directly. “It’s an area of medicine that’s largely being underserved.”
The Vancouver-based pharmaceuticals company aims to take a leap forward after raising $65 million in capital in August to get clinical trials underway by 2021 for treatments for kidney disease.
Patients with end-stage renal disease – the last stage of chronic kidney disease –make up 1% of Medicare patients in the U.S. but account for 7% of costs, according to University of California San Francisco research.
The research pegged those costs to the American Medicare program at US$35 billion in 2016.
“Despite that fact, very few drugs exist to slow the progression of kidney disease once you’re diagnosed,” Frohlich said.
“We see a real opportunity to go after progressive kidney diseases.”
Historically, big pharmaceutical companies tried developing treatments for broad groups of people – generally those whose kidney disease was caused by high blood pressure or diabetes.
“There’s different causes of kidney disease in those patient types,” Frohlich said, “so going after them with one mechanism didn’t really do very much.”
Instead, Chinook has been tapping into advances in precision medicine – tailored treatments based on genetic profiles – and identifying specific subsets of patients that have either a genetic predisposition or a key chemical pathway that’s driving the kidney disease.
Versant Ventures managing director Jerel Davis, whose firm led Chinook’s $65 million funding round, told Business in Vancouver in an email that his company’s investment comes from a conviction that kidney disease is poised for “novel new treatments” owing to advances in precision medicine.
Larger drug companies, such as Johnson & Johnson Inc. (NYSE:JNJ) in Boston and Novartis International AG (SWX:NOVN) in Switzerland, have also been setting up kidney-focused teams as precision medicine opens up the doors to new markets.
Frohlich acknowledged the arena will be getting increasingly competitive, but the company’s relatively small size will keep it nimble as it moves into clinical trials. It’s launched partnerships with the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and Washington University in St. Louis since launching about a year ago with a team of 25, many of whom had been reconstituted from a Merck KGaA (ETR:MRK) division that was formerly in Vancouver.
“The money is going to follow the innovation,” said Wendy Hurlburt, CEO of the LifeSciences BC industry association.
She praised the advances being made by Chinook, adding that she’s hopeful breakthroughs from other B.C.-based companies will draw not only more capital but also more talent to the province’s life sciences sector.
Earlier this month LifeSciences BC’s annual investors summit drew a record 200 attendees (mostly investors from the U.S., Europe and Asia looking to sink cash into early-stage B.C. companies) and 85 applications from companies looking to present to investors.
“We definitely have better momentum than we’ve had historically,” Hurlburt said, citing data from her organization that concluded there were more than 1,300 clinical trials currently underway in B.C., 59% of which are industry funded.