$150M fund created to research existing drugs for COVID-19 treatment

A Philadelphia genetics expert is raising a $150 million fund to unearth existing drugs that may be capable of battling the coronavirus.

The pandemic has exposed glaring weaknesses in the pharmaceutical industry, showing there’s scant investment in researching whether drugs that have already been developed for one kind of illness might be used to treat COVID-19, says the fund’s founder Barbara Handelin, who is targeting investors like BlackRock and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The new Audacity R4 Medicines Evergreen Fund, for example, wants to start trials on drugs that were previously developed in the search for an effective Severe Acute Respiratory System (SARS) treatment. There’s a chance those drugs can be used to treat the coronavirus, given the virus’ similarities to SARS, Handelin said.

“Some of our colleagues were working on this 10 years ago,” she said. “We were unprepared for this crisis despite having 90 percent of the science on coronaviruses.”

On one hand, there are typically skimpy returns on investment for treating rare diseases. If, however, an already-developed medicine focused on an unusual illness proves effective in battling the pandemic, the payoff could be huge, according to Handelin.

“The current crisis over COVID-19 has revealed a systemic problem in how we create and make medicines and diagnostic tests,” Handelin told The Post.

Drugs that look interesting are often developed by academics for a certain disease, and have already filed applications with the US Food and Drug Administration for human trials. Should a drug prove successful in treating coronavirus, Audacity would produce it in its local manufacturing facilities, Handelin said.

The Audacity fund is likewise looking to develop drugs to fight other emerging diseases. That includes applying for human trials of promising drugs that are still in the pipeline.

Audacity’s chief scientist is David Housman, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The fund’s investment manager is venture capital attorney Norman Friedland.

The 10-year fund is projecting a 3 percent to 5 percent annual return.

Handelin was part of the BioPontis Alliance Fund, which was dedicated to financing the earliest stages of drug development and featured in a Milken Institute white paper. She also established a genetic testing lab, Integrated Genetics, and a gene therapy company, Genovo.

“We see that Bank of America has introduced a novel socially minded bond — and proclaims that socially driven investment will be the new normal — a perspective we have been promoting,” Handelin said.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration in May awarded a $354 million, four-year contract to Phlow Corp. to produce coronavirus treatments and build a US generic medicines production plant. Phlow is a new company that has never made drugs.

“Here’s our alternative, and we think it deserves support,” Handelin said.

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