Meet the co-developer of the first commercial mAb and gene therapy

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Sander van Deventer is now a managing partner at Forbion after playing a critical role in the development of the first commercial monoclonal antibody, Remicade, and the first market-approved gene therapy, Glybera. I was curious to know what he did to achieve such an impressive track record.

Sander van Deventer was trained as an internist and board certified gastroenterologist, received a PhD from the University of Amsterdam, and worked as a scientist at Rockefeller University in New York. He was introduced early on to monoclonal antibodies and has always been close to the clinics. “Transitioning to biotech wasn’t that big of a change for me,” he says.

This led him to join Centocor to help develop the anti-TNF antibody Infliximab, which was held to Johnson and Johnson as part of the $4.9B acquisition of the biotech company in 1999.

Van Deventer then co-founded uniQure, previously called Amsterdam Molecular Therapeutics, in 1998 and became a scientific advisor. He later took over as CSO and CEO in 2004 to lead the regulatory process and bring the first gene therapy ever to the market.

So Sander, what were your tricks to bring the first antibody and gene therapy to the market?

It’s extremely challenging to develop a drug based on a technology that no one has done before. We had to convince the key opinion leaders and the regulatory authorities of the benefits. The first trick is to show what is different, and we turned the endpoints completely upside down. The new endpoints we used are now the rule.

The second trick is not to take literature and predictions for granted. With Glybera, we had to show that all the assumptions about the drug were wrong and we did so through our clinical studies. You have to believe in your technology, work on first principles and prove everything from the start.

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Why did you choose to move to venture capital?

I spent 14 years on the biotech side and doing the translation work, so I wanted to go to the other side of the table.

These years helped me to realize how little academia understood about drug development. When you do a €100M investment, you need to make sure that all the pieces of the puzzle are ready beforehand; otherwise, you realize it too late and might lose your investment. I now also like to work on building companies from the ground up with really experienced management and larger upfront investments.

You just worked on an impressive success story, Dezima, which you sold €1.36B to Amgen in 2015 just three years after inception in one of Europe’s largest exits. What’s the story?

It’s definitely a nice story for Forbion. Dezima was designed to be a virtual company with very experienced management on board, both on the drug development side and the manufacturing side. We licensed the compound from Mitsubishi and had a rapid development plan through Phase IIb.

This was a very risky investment though, everyone thought that cholesterylester transferase protein (CETP) inhibitors, which are derived from statins and involved in the HDL/LDL balance, were dead and we proved that to be wrong. We published in The Lancet that it actually filled the gap between statins and antibodies. I guess it convinced Amgen, which is now developing the drug further towards to the market.

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What’s your next ‘first’ (after antibody and gene therapy)?

Good question! I really like antisense technology, it has still huge delivery issues but it has a lot of potentials if combined with gene therapy and silencing technologies.

The technology behind enGene is unique too: it’s an oral pill that leads to the expression of genes in the guts. It could be a breakthrough in the treatment of intestinal diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease.

Last but not least, the one-off treatments for hemophilia are a huge breakthrough as it’s finally a long term treatment instead of twice-a-week injections.

Over your intense career, what were your key takeaways?

My big lesson is knowing who is driving new drug development and who is pulling them back.

Venture capital drives a lot of R&D and the development of new technologies. If investment had been left to pharma, you probably wouldn’t have a gene therapy on the market. It’s a big problem for some fields such as antibiotics, where big pharma manages all the investments and where very few developments take place.

On the same line, regulators, third party payers, and doctors are very conservative for risk and cost reasons. The doctors we talked to thought antibodies would be dangerous, which seems crazy today…

On the other hand, patients are playing a more and more important role in pulling new technologies: the cystic fibrosis patient organization being probably one of the best examples in helping biotech companies develop new drugs, for example, Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

It was great talking with Sander. He is probably one of the best in Europe at translating biotech breakthroughs to commercial products. As a managing partner at the biggest biotech fund in the Netherlands, he shares his experience and injects capital into new companies across the EU. This could help fund the startups leading to the next monoclonal antibodies and gene therapies.


Images via Shutterstock.com/vchal/pixelliebe

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