Venatorx Pharmaceuticals is Developing Therapeutic Improvements to Fight Gram Negative Bacterial and Viral Infections

CEO Christopher Burns spoke about their investigational therapy pipeline, the long view perspective for the company, and how the federal government’s use of the nomenclature innovation might actually hinder incremental improvements in antibiotic development.

Venatorx Pharmaceuticals Cofounder and CEO Christopher Burns, PhD, likes to say he started the company with two other longtime friends, Daniel Pevear, PhD, senior vice president, Biology and Grants Development, and Luigi Xerri, PhD, senior strategic advisor and head of Scientific Affairs, at a well-known, corporate bakery and restaurant. The 3 pharmaceutical veterans laid the groundwork for the company there, which was started in 2010, and is headquartered in suburban Philadelphia, PA. The company name comes from the Latin word venator, which means hunter, and rx is the medical symbol for drugs.

Venatorx is a private, clinical-stage pharmaceutical company with a focus on multi-drug-resistant bacterial infections and hard-to-treat viral infections.

The current pipeline has 2 lead antibacterial clinical-stage therapies, which includes the intravenous therapy, cefepime-taniborbactam, that is in phase 3 trials and ceftibuten/VNRX-7145 which is in phase 1 trials. The company also has its VNRX-9945, which is a Hepatitis B virus inhibitor and is in phase 1.

Earlier this month, they signed a research collaboration and license agreement with Roche to discover, characterize, and develop new small molecule inhibitors of the penicillin binding proteins in gram-negative bacteria focused on agents active against carbapenem-resistant Enterobacterales.

Burns says they expect a readout of data for cefepime-taniborbactam by late February.

“If it makes it to the market, it will be the first agent to cover the 2 main sub classes of resistance for gram-negatives,” Burns said.

Burns recently presented a keynote speech at the World Antimicrobial Resistance Congress and one of the major themes of his speech was the debate on what innovation means in the development of antibiotics. He says there are 3 categories of drugs: new, first in-class; true innovation around known mechanisms; and copycat drugs.

He explains everyone wants the first, they don't understand the value of the middle category, and no one wants the third category.

“There has been a misunderstanding of what can be innovative versus what’s considered derivative,” Burns said. “I think part of that misunderstanding is that the world really doesn’t want copycat drugs.”

Pharmaceutical companies have been trying to develop new, first in-class antibiotics, says Burns, but he makes the distinction that improvements in current classes of therapies are treating people today.

Burns says that for gram negative infections there haven’t been any new, first in-class antibiotics in decades. And with bacterial infection resiliencies it is very difficult to make efficacious therapies that will last for a long time. And even in spite of this knowledge, drug development continues to look for new therapeutic agents.

“We have all been looking for something brand new: new classes of drugs; new targets; new mechanisms of action. For some of the key areas of need, which is in gram-negative infections, we have not been very successful.”

Still, Burns makes the point that therapeutic improvements in the beta lactam antibiotics have been saving people’s lives for nearly a century since the discovery of penicillin.

“Improvements in penicillin have been going on every year for almost the last 90 to 100 years,” Burns said. “And each time you improve penicillin into newer drugs that all bare the same beta lactam but have other new improvements you meet a patient’s needs. So while you are waiting for that brand new thing...the patient’s laying in a hospital bed and needs to look up and see the IV bag has something going into their arm that is going to cure them.”

And this mindset of finding innovative new agents is how the federal government wants to apply its incentives to pharmaceutical companies. “There is a policy making its way through Congress that could create a subscription model like Netflix, where the government will reward innovators in this space,” Burns said. “By this mistaken use of words like innovation, it can only be a brand new drug to qualify. If we haven’t had one in 60 years, you might have to wait another 60. So, you will have this pool of money that no one will be able to access if the future is like the past.”

Contagion spoke to Burns about his company’s investigational therapies, and long-term plans, as well as his experience at the World Antimicrobial Resistance Congress.