Tell us more about MetrioPharm and why did you decide to found the firm?
MetrioPharm works on a new class of anti-inflammatory drugs. Two years before we founded the firm, I came across summarized scientific reports from the 60s in California and some work that has been done in Eastern Europe before the Iron Curtain came down, which showed that this molecule class that we are developing, could have anti-inflammatory effects.
The reason I latched on to this was because it was a molecule I knew from my PhD work in Neuroscience. I started researching and we decided that this could be something worth exploring further. My co-Founders were bold enough to found the company on this basis, and here we are.
How has the company grown since it was founded in 2007?
When we founded MetrioPharm, all we had was the basic formula of this molecule and these reports. As the molecule was not in a form that you could give to people, we had to modify the molecule so it was druggable and safe for humans.
Then we explored how it worked, what is the mechanism and the chemistry needed to produce it. It took us about eight years to find out how it worked. We saw very early on that our molecule works very well in anti-inflammatory, but it was hard to to understand why this was the case. We were already in clinical trials at the time when we finally understood how it actually works in the cell.
Why was it so challenging to understand how it works?
The standard way is that you would have a biochemical or biological mechanism, a disease mechanism, and the target. Then you try to find a molecule or drug that that modifies this target like a receptor.
With our molecule, it was very different because it does not target any receptor or any classical molecule. Instead, it targets what is called oxidative stress and reactive, oxygen species. This is a sub-molecular event that happens during the transfer of electrons. We are not even talking about atoms but rather electrons – and that reaches into the realm of quantum events rather than classical biochemistry.
This mechanism eluded all the standard assay methods. We were looking at molecules while it was happening at a completely different level. That is why it took so long.
There must have been some very interesting publications.
We actually found out in the past year when testing it on in cellular infection models with SARS CoV 2 that it also inhibits viral replication.
So, our publication was related to this finding.
What has been a highlight so far?
The highlight was when we got the first results and found out how our drug works. We had been looking for an answer for more than eight years. All the theories we had before always turned out negative. Nothing worked.
After more than 8 years, we finally had this decisive experiment and when we got the results, it was such a revelation to finally understand why it worked. The puzzle was finally complete.
How did you come up with this decisive experiment that completed this puzzle?
I have an interest in theoretical physics and from a reading I did in a very obscure scientific journal (which had nothing to do with medicine), I thought, this could be it. It was a very weird idea but we decided to give it a shot. When the results came out, 9 months later, suddenly, everything was crystal clear. That was truly a great moment.
What stage is Metriopharm at right now?
We are in the final stages of preparation and regulatory approval of the Phase II trial. In the midst of all this preparation, we found and what we hypothesise is this drug may play a very important role in the therapy of COVID because most of the drugs that are currently developed, are for the very severe cases that like dexamethasone etc. whereby patients are already in intensive care and may be ventilated.
Inflammation is a big problem in these patients. That’s what makes them sick. It’s not the virus, it’s the inflammation. Yet, all the standard anti-inflammatory drugs that are nowadays are very potent suppressors of the immune system. In an infection, it’s not really what you want.
That’s the problem when you have patients that are just infected and then start getting sick. When you use the normal anti-inflammatory drugs, these patients get even worse because you suppress the immune system.
Our drug is the first anti-inflammatory that we know of that enhances the immune system, so you can treat patients very early on and hopefully prevent them from even becoming so sick that they go to the Intensive Care where it becomes life-threatening.
We think that this would be a major breakthrough, not keeping people from dying but keeping people from even becoming so sick that that they are in danger of dying and that would, of course, make a huge difference in treatment, if that is successful.
Have you always known you would become an entrepreneur?
I first became an entrepreneur about 30 years ago with my first small biotech that I co-founded with some colleagues from the Max Planck Institute. We developed a nice technology in the lab and others also wanted this technology, but there was no one making the tools. It was in synthetic DNA.
I loved my first journey as an entrepreneur and never looked back.
What drives you?
I’m a medical doctor by training. The prospect of finding and developing a whole new pharmaceutical mechanism for treating all these chronic and acute diseases is highly rewarding.
Being able to develop a new drug, to bring something into the world for patients which so far has not existed, is basically a dream come true.
So I’m actually not working. I’m having the greatest time of my life.
Any lessons learned that you could share?
There are two keys to success in this endeavour. Firstly, never discard any weird or wild idea. Keep looking, don’t go just along traditional ways of thinking. Secondly, tenacity is key, just keep at it.
What is your view on failure?
I don’t generally see things as failure. Towards the end of my life, I want to look back and know that I have at least tried. If I tried and failed, that’s okay. But not having tried at all that to me would mean real failure.
I enjoy digging into problems and and I particularly like problems that are not easily solved.
I remember a quote by Thomas Edison:
“I have not failed. I have just found 10’000 new ways that don’t work.”
What are your hopes for MetrioPharm?
The vision for the company and the molecule we develop is that this addresses a very central mechanism which is responsible for chronic inflammatory diseases and the deterioration of health during aging.
The long-term goal is to have our compound slow deterioration during aging. We are not primarily aiming to prolong life, rather to prolong the healthy lifespan of people. We address that by treating chronic inflammatory diseases like arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and neurodegenerative diseases.