Speeding Smart Discovery in High Point

Nov. 17, 2005
TransTech Pharma is generating high-quality drug leads for Pfizer and others, even for compounds thought “undruggable.”
By Paul Thomas, Managing EditorTransTech Pharma of High Point, N.C. was founded just five years ago by Adnan Mjalli, Ph.D., a former Merck and Ontogen scientist well-known for his work in combinatorial chemistry. At Ontogen, Dr. Mjalli was one of the first to use the power of computing to create thousands, rather than handfuls, of new compounds in a short period of time.The problem was, Mjalli recalls, the industry “went crazy and started to make millions and millions of compounds,” regardless of their quality or potential for development. Dr. Mjalli spent the first two years at TransTech exploring and developing TTP, or Translational Technology Platform, a proprietary automated process that evaluates and screens drug molecules and compounds in order to produce high quality candidates for development.
TransTech also has a set of 55,000 probes — the “crown jewels,” Mjalli says — that bind to other compounds and provide scientists with robust, smart data on its potential effectiveness and promise as a drug lead.TransTech now has more than 90 employees and has spun off another company, PharmaCore, a fee-for-service company which makes many of the building blocks used by TransTech and other companies (Pfizer among them) in drug manufacturing.That includes drugs for the central nervous system, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and more. “A lot of companies have come to us with their problems and targets that they said were essentially ‘undruggable’,” Mjalli says. While it has partnerships with larger manufacturers such as Merck and Novo Nordisk, it also hopes to bring some of its own drugs to market. One targets genes that may be responsible for obesity, which Mjalli says trigger the “hungry/not hungry” switch inside us.Managing Editor Paul Thomas recently sat down and spoke with Mjalli in his High Point office:P.M.: What is driving TransTech’s success?
A.M.: The fuel is the discovery engine that we have, Translational Technology Platform (TTP). What might take another pharmaceutical company seven, eight or many more years to do, we do in two years. That of course translates into tremendous savings. We can’t afford to spend 18 years or more of our lifetime and budget to get a drug to the marketplace. The competitive landscape gets tougher and tougher every year.”P.M.: What makes TTP so special?
A.M.: From a chemistry point of view, the key is simplicity. Mother Nature defines diversity based on a limited number of amino acids, 18 to 20, which then build thousands of biological targets. We’ve done something similar and developed a limited number, about 55,000, smart compounds or probes that bind to proteins and give scientists better information than was previously possible.You could look at it this way. You could fish in an ocean by casting a net without knowing where the fish are, or you could have sonar looking under the surface of the water to spot bigger fish. You could also say the classical way is looking for a needle in a haystack. Ours is a smarter way. It required med/chem expertise that was then translated into the computer.P.M.: What about the hardware and software aspects?A.M.: When molecules are created and tested, you are able to know if you are off by 100%, 50%, 20% or another amount. That data helps you revise your hypothesis, so the next time you are closer to what you are looking for.P.M.: Did you see an urgent need for a technology like TTP?A.M.: Previously, chemists only had one source for their compounds, and the intellectual property space was very crowded. The result was that, whether it was at Merck, BMS, or Glaxo, 90% of the sample collections would be the same.We’ve now been able to solve problems for these companies. Some of them have come to us with compounds that they said were “undruggable,” and we’ve found a way.P.M.: As president and CEO of a rapidly expanding startup, what are you looking for in the personnel you hire?A.M.: People make or break companies. We want people with large company experience but a small company mentality. Sometimes when you pull people out of a large company and put them in a small place, they get lost. I tried to rush the first year. I hired three or four people with experience, but I fired them because they didn’t have that entrepreneurial sense. That was the best thing I’ve done, because they weren’t going to take us where I wanted to go.P.M.: Have you had any difficulty recruiting people to come to High Point?A.M.: No. People go where the science and opportunity are. The new generation of scientists wants to do good science, and is looking for a certain lifestyle — to own a home, raise a family and live in an area that’s not too congested. We have that here. We have not gone after one potential employee that we lost because of location.Plus, now cutting-edge science is not in the large companies. Scientists don’t have to go to Rahway, N.J. [where Merck Research Laboratories is located] or some other place to do what they want to do.