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Optimata: Eyes on the Prize

By John Russell

Oct. 10, 2007 | Remember the joke about the fellow who walks into a psychiatrist office and complains that his head hurts from banging it against a wall? And the psychiatrist says.…

Optimata, a seven-year-old predictive modeling specialist, hasn’t so much given up banging against the fee-for-services wall (it will still do some of that), but it has decided to shift focus to a potentially more lucrative wall — drug repurposing and development. It’s likely a smart move and a good bet that other systems biology firms will follow suit, finding their heads equally sore.

Founded in 2000 by pioneering bio-mathematician, Zvia Agur, Israel-based Optimata has spent the intervening years developing its Virtual Patient platform, a powerful predictive engine perhaps best described by Agur: “In cancer we describe the whole disease dynamics. So when we’re talking about the growth of very miniscule tumors, they have geometric arrangements, cell cycles, diffusion of nutrients, and the drug eventually in the tumor. We create a detailed mathematical description of all that. Just to give you an idea, to translate only angiogenesis into biomathematical algorithms is a question of about 2.5 man-years work.” (See “Optimizing Optimata,” Bio•IT World, November 2005, for more background).

Input key patient data and Virtual Patient is able to run virtual trials, testing various drug regimes. Last October, Optimata reported results of a proof-of-concept project with cancer researchers at the Nottingham City Hospital, U.K. The Virtual Patient platform was able to predict breast cancer patients’ response to chemotherapy drugs with 70 percent accuracy. That’s substantially better than what most oncologist achieve, says Optimata. Another pilot with Lilly, this time supporting development of a new compound, went well and Lilly extended its collaboration last January.

Turning stellar science into cash, however, has proven difficult.

Finding the Right Business Model
In late 2005, Guy Malchi was brought in as CEO, “to find a business model that will work. That’s the reason I joined. It took a long time to analyze what’s going on out there in terms of how to create value. The first thing we wanted to do is to engage with companies that would benefit from the technology in order to make it not a theoretical exercise but to understand exactly the needs of the other side of our partners, and also understand our capabilities versus those needs,” he says.

Malchi joined Optimata from the London-based European Life Science practice for TEFEN Ltd., a global management consultancy firm. He is a founding partner of the practice and for seven years “substantially grew” the business via collaborations with global pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Schering-Plough, and Yamanouchi. 

Now, says Malchi, “I believe we have identified what we hope is the sweet spot, which means to try to identify these continued oncology compounds that were proven to be safe in man, so passed successfully Phase I [but failed for some other reason]. We would then license them, and use the Virtual Patient technology to find a new direction in terms of indication, patient population, drug regimen, and then actually go out to carry out the Phase 2 that’s to validate our prediction. We will be able then to out-license the compound.”

Malchi says Optimata has a list of “less than a hundred compounds that we believe that we can re-purpose, and we are now in the process of approaching those companies.” To drive that effort, Optimata just hired a VP of product development (Alex Chausovsky).

Certainly big challenges remain. Drug repositioning is hot, and many are dabbling in it (See “Drug Redux,” p. 32). It’s not yet clear how many are succeeding.

“I think the biggest challenge is to continue to enhance our core competency, whilst introducing completely new capabilities to carry out Phase II [activities]. Israel is very good in drug discovery, but we don’t have a lot of clinical development expertise. It means that the pool of knowledge in Israel is limited and we have to look outside,” says Malchi, who notes additional funding will also be needed to carry out phase two trials.

Stay tuned. (A more complete interview with Optimata’s CEO is available here.)

Email John Russell.

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