The active substance of the drug already exists and (entrepreneurs) researchers Heikki Joensuu, Olli Kallioniemi, Olli-Pekka Pulkka and Harri Sihto are developing a new use for it. Repurposing a drug is a faster and more efficient way of developing new drugs as the side effects and other properties of the drug are already known. The drug Sartar Therapeutics is repurposing has before only been used to treat patients with an elevated amount of thrombocytes but the researchers (turned entrepreneurs) found that the drug also has an effect on GISTs. However, first the drug needs to be transformed into a form that makes it administrable as a targeted drug.
GISTs or gastrointestinal stromal tumors are tumours that develop mostly in the stomach but also in the small intestine and in the esophagus. According to Harri Sihto at Sartar Therapeutics, GIST is a model cancer for using targeted drugs. The treatment used for GISTs now, works well, but the tumour recurs easily and then the drug might not work any more and new treatments need to be developed.
From researchers to entrepreneurs
The Sartas Therapeutics team made their invention in the Translational cancer biology program funded by the Academy of Finland (project) where they managed to find an enzyme that is found on an exeptional level in GISTs. This enzyme had not before been connected to the development of the cancer. A drug that before has been used to treat patients with too many trombocytes in their blood prevents the enzyme from working and it killed GIST-cells in tests.
Researchers Harri Sihto and Olli-Pekka Pulkka started Sartar Therapeutics in March 2016 together with professors Heikki Joensuu and Olli Kallioniemi. The reason behind starting the company was the need to get the patent for their findings and to develop a drug and finally be able to get the drug to the patients who need it.
“We had to start a pharmaceutical company to be able to get funding to develop the drug”, Harri Sihto says.
The drug is going to be developed so that it is pleasant to use. It is released slowly into the body, which causes less side effects. The drug is meant for patients who have tumours that for some reason don’t respond to the old drug. These patients can be identified by different biomarkers.
Sartar Therapeutics plans to develop the drug until the second clinical trial, where the drug is given to patients for the first time. After this they plan to sell or license the drug to other companies.
“When we have developed the drug further, the market is global.”
Networking helps to move forward
Sartar Therapeutics develops the drug together with other companies. Turku based DelSiTech helps the company remodel the drug so that it can be administered subcutaneously with a syringe.
The researchers turned entrepreneurs don’t have a lot of experience about in and Helsinki has offered a lot of help to the new business owners. Keksintösäätiö, a fund for inventions, has helped figure out the business potential for the repurposed drug.
Health Capital Helsinki has offered a platform for networking and helped to find out where to get funding. The network has also helped the company get more publicity. One of the founders, professor Heikki Joensuu held a presentation at the Upgrade life -festival in Helsinki on how it is as a researcher to become an entrepreneur.
Harri Sihto anticipates more exact treatment methods in the future of health care. Patients can be treated more individually and efficiently when side effects are easier to predict and it is possible to know in advance what treatment will work.