Sunday, November 4, 2007

Today's Globe column: The Elixir/Sirtris Rivalry

As a journalist, it's hard to resist writing about rivalries -- especially when big personalities are involved.

Elixir Pharmaceuticals and Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, two companies founded to exploit the science of sirtuins (which are enzymes thought to be linked to the aging process and age-related disease), have the big personalities: Jonathan Fleming and Ansbert Gadicke, heads of the two biggest biotech VC firms in Boston, are on the board of Elixir, and Christoph Westphal, the golden boy of Boston life sciences, runs Sirtris. (Westphal worked for Polaris Venture Partners before deciding to become a CEO.)

And Sirtris managed to go public first; Elixir is now trying to follow suit.

But the crucial difference is that Sirtris is still very much pursuing drugs based on the sirtuin work of local researchers like Harvard's David Sinclair, while Elixir has in-licensed a diabetes drug already approved in Japan (which has nothing to do with sirtuins), and is trying to get it approved in the US. Elixir, five years older than Sirtris, has decided to develop a near-term product, while Sirtris is still focused on the long-term vision.

“The decision was made that the company needed to really get commercial as quickly as it could,” Ed Cannon, Elixir’s first chief executive, told me. [His comments were snipped from the column before it ran.] “They needed later-stage molecules,” he says, referring to drugs that are closer to winning FDA approval.

Cannon is bullish on both companies' prospects (he still holds some stock in Elixir). “I think Christoph has been a magician,” Cannon says. “And it’s not just smoke and mirrors. He has surrounded the company with terrific scientists, and terrific business people and investors.”

Here's the video, featuring MIT prof and Elixir co-founder Lenny Guarente talking about his research:

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