Executive Interviews: Steve Kriegsman
Conducted By Michael J. Harris, Managing Editor
Interview with Steve Kriegsman, President and CEO, CytRx Corporation
How did your agreement with University of Massachusetts Medical School contribute to CytRx's start in the field of RNAi?
When I took over CytRx in 2002 with plans to restructure the company in a direction that focused on a breakthrough technology, one of the ideas from our newly formed scientific advisory board was to look into RNAi. Following up on that idea, we identified UMMS as a pioneer and leader in that field and were able to negotiate an arrangement with them under which we acquired exclusive rights to develop their RNAi technology. They became CytRx's second-largest shareholder behind me and we licensed rights to Type II diabetes, ALS and obesity technologies from them. That forward deal jump-started us into the RNAi market and put us in a leadership position was founded on their pioneering wor
There were some questions as to whether or not your exclusive agreement with UMMS would hinder your ability to strike subsequent deals with big pharma later. Has that proven to be the case?
No. Our UMMS agreement placed no restrictions on our ability to seek alliances with other companies, and we have indeed been approached by a number of big pharma and big biotech companies on our obesity and diabetes programs.
That is because not only do we have a top-level team of experts in those two fields, we also in-licensed the receptor-interacting protein 140, or Rip140, nuclear hormone co-repressor gene from Imperial College of London. As a result of that technology, it was found that the mass animal models in the laboratory were eating as much as they wanted on a high-fat diet without gaining weight. The mechanism works by metabolizing the fat faster than the intake of food.
Of course, the goal of such a potential blockbuster drug would be to assist an overweight person in shedding pounds, so accordingly, big pharma would have an interest in a product that burns fat quicker than the body ingests food.
Can you comment on your recruitment of CytRx's renowned scientific advisory board and how you are able to enlist and maintain such an influential and pioneering group?
We feel we have a dream team of advisors, including Dr. Craig Mello, the co-discoverer of RNAi, along with a Who's Who list of innovators in our drug target fields of ALS, diabetes, and obesity.
We are currently not involved in any litigation and don't anticipate any such issues, and that may be greatly attributable to the clear legal acknowledgment of Dr. Mello's work and original patent with Dr. Andrew Fire that essentially founded the RNAi field.
We feel that we are working with the Michael Jordans and Magic Johnsons of biotechnology, because when you talk about scientists like Michael Czech, a world leader in the fields of obesity and diabetes, or Robert Brown, the co-discoverer of the mutant SOD-1 gene for ALS, that's what the correlation amounts to. They show such complete commitment to their work and go the extra mile so much that it belies their superstar status. Dr. Louis Ignarro is a Nobel laureate for nitric oxide research, which is the foundation science for Viagra, all of our scientific board members are experts at the top of their fields and world-renown scientists. They are prima donnas in a sense, in that they are all gifted, one-of-a-kind talents and great human beings who deserve unique treatment. That's what I am able to give to them.
There was tremendous competition for all of them, but they really appreciated having someone knowing how to treat them. In a former life, I represented professional athletes, and great scientists are similar in that they require distinctive treatment to accommodate their professional status.
Are your RNAi clinical trial schedules progressing according to projections?
We are looking to get our ALS candidate into the clinic by the fourth quarter of 2005 and our obesity and diabetes compounds are on schedule to enter clinical trials by early-2006. All are progressing on a timetable close to what we told Wall Street earlier. We are eager to enter the clinic because we have achieved promising results in animal studies that we believe will continue in human applications.
Factors appear to be pointing in the right direction for CytRx and the industry in general, but what, if anything, are your concerns?
Even when things are going correctly, you always worry about the unknown, because biotech is inherently risky and bringing a drug through the long process to market presents ample opportunity for surprises. There are still the well-documented questions of stability delivery facing RNAi, However, I am motivated by focusing on the positive and doing everything in my power - including working with some of the best minds in science - to develop these drugs. What keeps me up at night is the excitement associated with the anticipation to get a chance to help people who are suffering from major diseases.
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