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Prudent: Biotech Centrose changes gears three years after launch

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

It’s not unusual for start-up biotech companies to shift gears or even change directions as they navigate their first few years.

That’s the case with Centrose, which was launched by James Prudent in 2007 with a set of intellectual property licensed from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation that centered on using sugars to make better drugs. But now the company has dropped its WARF license to focus on the development of targeted drugs to treat late-stage cancers.

Prudent said Centrose has raised $3.5 million and hopes to raise a total of $15 million to finance the development of its new extracellular drug conjugates (EDC) system.

He says the system has the potential to be a live-saving treatment for late-stage lung cancer patients. If all goes well, Prudent said he hopes to have the EDC system into its clinical Phase 1 trial in two years and have human data by the end of the third year.

“If we can show efficacy in Phase 1 for lung cancer, we’re hoping that the FDA will give us a fast-track approval,” he said. “So far, everything we can see shows that road should be pretty smooth."

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Prudent said lung cancer is often deadly because patients are not diagnosed until they have later-stage cancer and it has spread to other parts of the body.

“This is exactly what our first drug product is very effective on,” he said. “So we are seeing a lot of positive feedback.”

Prudent has found success at other area biotech businesses. He was chief scientific officer and a board member at EraGen Biosciences, a molecular diagnostic and genetic testing firm he renamed and moved from Florida to Madison. Prior to joining EraGen, he worked for Third Wave Technologies, where he co-invented the Invader Technology and helped turn it into a successful molecular diagnostics line.

But it's his current company where he sees the most potential: “I was excited about Third Wave and EraGen, but never as excited about any company, even the two I was with out in California like I am about Centrose."

Prudent allowed that he never really wanted to run a biotech company, but said he prefers to remain in charge because of his understanding of the science.

“When we go out now with our new product, it’s all about the science. Nobody wants to hear about the hype. When we go to pharma and give presentations, it is all about the data and they are very savvy. They know all the details and they want to go to the CEO and talk about the details."

Prudent said Centrose initially used its WARF license to develop drugs that were very active at killing cancer cells, but they weren’t very selective. Unfortunately, that meant the drugs could be toxic to normal cells. But in the process, the Centrose team discovered a new way to pinpoint and destroy cancer cells by using a protein known as an antibody and linking it with another cancer drug.

“What we ended up doing was looking a little closer at the biology and we found something that I think is going to transform the way that people look at targeting systems for drugs,” he said.

"With the protein attached to the drug, the drug now only functions to kill cancer cells,” Prudent said. “This is because these diseased cells have both the target for the drug and the target for the protein in close proximity.”

The company has filed for U.S. and worldwide patents and Prudent said it could go in a number of different directions.

Prudent said he believes this is a good time to raise money for Centrose, with investors still wary of the stock market. He’s hoping that they will see opportunity when they look at Centrose.

“They’ll see that we are working in a multi-billion-dollar marketplace with our first EDC drug and now have to get it manufactured and into the clinic. They’ll see that Centrose’s EDC-ONE is showing great efficacy and safety in animal tests, so the risk is low but the potential is enormous.”

Prudent said he remains bullish on Madison’s biotech industry and said that his company has actually created jobs during the recession by doing more things in-house rather than outsourcing them, all while cutting overall costs. Because Centrose stopped outsourcing much of its work, it added three employees here in Madison, bringing the company’s total to eight.

He said the recession also gave his company time to figure out what it did best.

“It’s almost like we were in a race and (the light) was green,” Prudent said. “Well, then the market crashed and the light went yellow we went into a pit stop and figured out what can we do during this period and are there other alternatives while we wait for the economy to get back on its feet. That’s really how we discovered this EDC technology.”

And he said the Wisconsin biotech sector has done well, too, in part because investors have a “conservative attitude about how they build businesses and spend money here. ”

“One of the things that always amazed me when I worked in California was how quickly companies there grow and spend money because they are all focused on time, trying to get things done as quickly as possible before someone beats you."

He said Wisconsin companies often take a longer term perspective, conserving cash flow and eventually offering investors a nice return on their investments.

Prudent said he’d like to see more home-grown biotechs stay in Wisconsin.

“It would also be nice to have more manufacturing companies here, so we could bring in jobs across the gamut of where biotech really is. It’s not research and discovery, which we do well here. It’s also building the products in large factories for the consumer.”

Overall, Prudent said he believes investors with deep pockets see the biotech market as “pretty recession resistant.

“People want better drugs, especially if they have a life-threatening disease,” he said. “And especially if there are very few options for them.”

Now Prudent sees potential for his company's products to save lives down the road.

“We got lucky in a lot of ways. But I think we have a really great chance to make a big difference in the lives of people who with late-stage cancers. I think we will find in the years to come that for people with late-stage cancers who have no other alternatives, our drug will be a life-saving option for them.

“So someday, if I can sit back and say I saved someone’s life, I can go to my grave a pretty happy man.”

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