Senexis CEO, Dr Mark Treherne
Backgrounder: Senexis, based at Babraham Research Campus, is developing novel small molecule inhibitors of amyloid aggregation as potential therapeutic agents to inhibit and reverse the pathogenic process of protein misfolding, amyloid-related toxicity and inflammation.
Currently, it is building a pipeline of drug development programmes for neurological (Alzheimer's disease) and systemic degenerative conditions (type 2 diabetes, Dialysis Related Amyloidosis & Inclusion Body Myositis) and developing the company's composition-of-matter patent portfolio with a range of small molecule aggregation inhibitors, as well as inhibitors of amyloid-related inflammation for Alzheimer's disease. Chief executive Mark Treherne obtained his PhD in receptor neuropharmacology from Cambridge University with funding from Merck. He went on to complete a post-doc on diabetes, before holding a senior faculty position at the Biozentrum in Basel. Mark now has 25 year's experience in the discovery of novel treatments for diseases of the central and peripheral nervous systems, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. He was formerly at Pfizer in the UK, where he was responsible for research into neurodegenerative diseases. On leaving Pfizer in 1997, Mark set up Cambridge Drug Discovery as chief executive, which was sold to BioFocus in 2001 for £28 million. Mark has now been involved in raising over £90 million for various biotechnology companies and joined Senexis in 2002.
1 - As an experienced biotech entrepreneur what inspired you to launch Senexis? I got involved with Senexis when it was closing it first round of investment in 2002. At that time, the company was still embedded in academia and the Wellcome Trust and BTG wanted someone with more commercial experience to get involved as a condition of their initial investment. Personally, I was attracted to Senexis' technical focus on the proteins underlying Alzheimer's disease, which was an exciting area of emerging science to treat an unmet medical need with great commercial potential.2 - How have you found the funding climate and are you having any difficulty raising development capital? To date, Senexis has raised £6.3 million since that initial investment in 2002. So, we have been able to raise sufficient funding to meet our needs. Over that period, however, traditional venture capital funding for drug discovery has all but dried up in the UK. Fortunately, the gap has been filled by corporate investors and charities, as well as government and European grants.3 - Can you put an approximate timescale on significant milestones that you hope to achieve? Yes, we are currently in the process of selecting clinical development candidates, which we plan to progress into pre-clinical development for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease early next year.4 - Do you think age-related diseases have been taken seriously enough by the industry in past years? Yes, with the possible exception of infectious diseases, the prevalence of nearly all major diseases increases with age and we are living longer. However, the effect of ageing on the turnover of proteins that underlie a number of significant diseases, such as Alzheimer's is novel science that has only emerged fairly recently. It's the role of small companies like Senexis to pick up on these trends well ahead of the established pharmaceutical industry, who are now very interested in the potential of our disease-modifying medicines.5 - Scientists and medics have recently been debating the thesis that healthcare and medical breakthroughs will see people living for much longer - well past 100 as a norm. What challenges does this pose for Senexis and for society? The challenge for us all is to able to enjoy a healthy and productive old age and not just cling on to life for as long as possible. Consequently, there is an urgent medical need for new medicines that are truly disease modifying rather than just prolonging the degenerative process.6 - How would you rate Senexis in the pantheon of biotech-related businesses in which you have been involved over the years? Senexis has the potential to make greatest difference to the greatest number of people's lives. After all, most successful technology businesses deliver ever cheaper and slicker commodities, like mobile phones, for example – very useful little gizmos but you can live without them! What price can you put on your health?7 - As former chairman of ERBI, how do you think the local biotech cluster has fared in recent times? Can you pinpoint any particular successes or notable failures? The quality of the science and people is as strong as ever, we just need to keep those bright people working productively in the region. The traditional venture capital community is not doing very well, however, largely because they have not made enough money for their own investors. On the other hand, where there is a real unmet medical need, there is always a market and corporate venturing, as well as venture philanthropy, is on the rise.8 – Cambridge is developing a European leading biomed campus where research and Big Pharma will operate side by side. What benefits do you think this enterprise holds for the industry and future society? Any new campus that promotes interaction between businesses is good for the region and the people that live there.9 - Do you think biotech in general will ever recover the former heights in terms of investor sentiment or has the investor community turned away, disillusioned from the sector? Again, I think you're right that the traditional venture capital community is probably disillusioned, as they can't seem to find a simple business model that works reliably for them. However, the multinational pharmaceutical sector is desperate for new truly differentiated products and they have plenty of cash and a need to spend it to remain competitive. Consequently, if the sentiment doesn't return here it will return somewhere else in the world and we'll have trade with them.10 - Can Cambridge improve its BioMed standing in the world by embracing convergence? Yes, no one technology on its own is particularly valuable, unless it works with other overlapping technologies.