In between two meetings in the Silicon Valley - "one of our two centers of gravity" - Life Sciences Pittsburgh caught up with the rising Pittsburgh-based start-up Peptilogics' CEO Sanjay Kakkar and President, Chief Scientific Officer & Founder Jonathan Steckbeck.
Peptilogics is an early-stage biotechnology company developing a new class of antibiotics with a novel mechanism of action derived from their eCAP (engineered cationic antibiotic peptide) platform for the treatment of multidrug-resistant infections.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you guys meet and what led you to founding Peptilogics?
[Jonathan] Educationally, I did most of my post-graduate training at the University of Pittsburgh, getting an MBA at the Katz Business School and a PhD in Biochemistry in the medical school. During my PhD and post-doc, I worked on the basic science underlying the technologies that we ended up licensing from the University. We founded Peptilogics in 2013 to commercialize the peptide antibiotic platform so for the last four years now, I have been working on taking the base technology and doing more of the drug development aspect.
[Sanjay] I am a physician by training, from the UK. For the last 25 years, I have been in the pharma- and biotech industry. The first few years I was in major multinational pharmaceutical companies in R&D, in Europe and in the US. And for the last 20 years, I have been a serial biotech entrepreneur having built three companies prior to joining Peptilogics in Europe, Asia and the San Francisco Bay Area. I was introduced to Jonathan in November last year by an earlier backer of Peptilogics, Stefan Roever, who was an investor in my last company. Stefan was looking at investing in Peptilogics and also becoming an active board director, which he has become. So I looked at the technology that Jonathan has been working on very hard for almost a decade. I was very impressed with a few key features of the technology and the company. One was the dramatic unmet need the company is focused on: mainly the growing threats of drug-resistant bacteria.
Jonathan, what inspired you to start the research that eventually led to Peptilogics?
[Jonathan] The reasons I got into antibiotics were two-fold. First, I’ve always liked working on important public health problems that are scientifically challenging. Prior to antibiotics, I worked in HIV research, initially in dissecting and understanding the host immune response to the virus. These studies transitioned into work on understanding how the structural characteristics of HIV’s envelope protein affect, influence, and ultimately contribute to the virus’s ability to evade the immune response.
Then, 13 years ago, my father-in-law contracted, and died from, a bacterial infection that didn’t respond to antibiotic treatment. Despite care in one of the world’s premier hospitals and treatment with every approved antibiotic, the infection couldn’t be controlled. That was a very clear and personal signal that the threat from drug-resistant infections was not theoretical, but was having real consequences for people. With a background in microbiology, I understood very quickly that bacterial drug resistance posed a serious medical threat, not only to individual patients but also to our modern medical system, which has been built on the availability and effectiveness of antibiotics to control infections. Now we’ve reached a moment in time where drug-resistant bacteria are increasingly considered to be one of humanity’s few credible existential threats, and rightly so. It’s one of the most important public health problems of our time. We founded and are building Peptilogics to do our part and play our role, contributing everything we can in fighting that threat.
What’s innovative/disruptive about Peptilogics?
[Sanjay] In the market, we have not really had a genuinely new class of antibiotics for over 20 years. So all of the existing approaches to antibiotic therapies rely on mechanisms that target processes within bacterial cells. Bacteria have become very effective at defending themselves against these through evolution. As a response to external threats, bacteria undergo genetic changes that allow for survival. Consequently, these antibiotics become ineffective. And that is what we are facing right now in the world. We are seeing a growing number of infections for which there are no treatments and those infections can very often be life threatening.
[Jonathan] Now we took this from a completely disruptive and novel perspective. We thought: “Okay we know that peptides in nature have evolved to be antimicrobial.” So, many plants and animals defend themselves against bacteria with antimicrobial peptides. And they do not work the same way as currently approved antibiotics. They work by directly acting on the cell membrane, ultimately disrupting a number of cellular processes, which rapidly kills the bacteria. Then we determined the active features of these naturally occurring peptides, and worked to reengineer and create new peptides to amplify the activity, reduce the toxicity associated with those types of peptides, and also make them easy to manufacture. Through that, we developed a technology that is totally novel.
What kind of support did you get along the way of creating this business?
[Jonathan] One of the things we did early was to take advantage of the programs that the University of Pittsburgh offers. We worked also in a close relationship with Idea Foundry, going through their accelerator program to actually help launch the business, to get contacts with the different law firms, etc. to launch the business. There were many challenges, as there are in any startup, and I am sure we hit them all! One of the biggest hurdles, of course, was the funding. It took a long time, it took a lot of work, lots of relationships, and so meeting Dietrich Stephan, a highly active and respected entrepreneur in Pittsburgh, eased the inroad into the network that we needed. Both locally with BlueTree Allied Angels and Catherine Mott (Founder and CEO) in Pittsburgh, and then also in the Bay area with Stefan Roever originally, and then we expanded it out.
[Sanjay] Having been involved in four early stage companies, I think that their support was instrumental in helping this company to move from idea to start-up, and then from start-up to where we are today. The University of Pittsburgh technology management group was really supportive and understanding too. They supported Jonathan and gave him the opportunity to actually get the company started with that initial tech transfer. The Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse were another strong source of advice in nurturing Jonathan.
What’s next for Peptilogics?
[Jonathan] As we announced in our press release, the next key step for the company is an investigational drug application that we are expecting to achieve by the middle of next year. And that is going to be a very important step forward for the company because that means bringing our first product to the clinic.
[Sanjay] We are working actively on the next steps for the company which we cannot discuss publicly yet. Stay tuned!