A pharmaceutical company founded by two Duke professors is making strides in glaucoma treatment.
Aerie Pharmaceutical, which was founded in 2005 and went public in late October, is developing drugs to treat glaucoma—an eye disease that affects many older people and can lead to blindness. Dr. David Epstein, chair of Duke Medicine’s department of ophthalmology, and Eric Toone, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass professor of chemistry, conducted the original research that led to the creation of these drugs. Aerie’s IPO raised approximately $60 million Oct. 30. The money will be used to fund later stage clinical trials of Aerie’s new drugs in development.
“There’s been no new glaucoma drug of any kind for 20 years,” Epstein said. “We’re at the frontier. It’s not a me-too drug. This is something really novel.”
Epstein has been involved in glaucoma research for decades, but the idea for the drug came about when he met Toone. Together, the two researchers came up with ideas for delivering new glaucoma drugs in an eye-drop form. Epstein credits Duke’s collegial and interdisciplinary environment for facilitating the research that led to Aerie.
“The biggest lesson is the value of interdisciplinary science at Duke.” Epstein said. “It never would have happened anywhere else except at a university where you can mix undergrads and graduate programs across different schools.”
Once Epstein and Toone had their initial ideas, they, along with biotechnology consultant Casey Kopczynski, who is now chief scientific officer at Aerie, decided to take their research and form Aerie Pharmaceuticals in order to attract the money needed to fuel further research and development.
“We got [the drugs] as far as we could get them at the University,” Toone said. “It was clear that to really start doing the [investigational new drug] studies we would need more resources, and so at that point we went to the venture capital market to look for money.”
Aerie ran into some roadblocks in phase 1 clinical trials when experimental drugs based on the original research done by Toone and Epstein did not work as well as they had hoped. However, the company was able to come up with other glaucoma drugs based on research that it had done. Once the company got off the ground, Toone and Epstein stepped back from management roles at the company.
“Although they worked, we didn’t feel that they worked well enough to deal with generic competition,” Toone said. “So we actually abandoned the compounds that we took out of the University. But we were developing other compounds with a new class of action, a new class of compound, and those compounds have done very, very well.”
Aerie is looking to begin phase 3 clinical trials in the third quarter of 2014 with one of the experimental glaucoma drugs it has developed, Kopczynski said. The phase 3 trials, which are the final phase of clinical trials, will last about a year. If they go well Aerie can obtain Food and Drug Administration approval to bring the drugs to market.
While Kopczynski could not comment on the likelihood of the drugs’ success in the upcoming clinical trials due to Securities and Exchange Commission rules, he pointed out that Aerie’s drugs are the first completely new glaucoma drugs to advance to phase 3 trials in 20 years.
Going forward, Aerie is developing more compounds that could be used to treat glaucoma.
Epstein hopes that Aerie’s success thus far will help spur additional government funding for glaucoma research and for scientific research in general. He also hopes that Aerie’s example will encourage more interdisciplinary research at Duke.
“I think it would be wonderful because there’s tremendous unmet need,” Epstein said. “But if you could stimulate science or more further drug development that would also be very, very good.”