An ambitious Finnish company plans to revolutionise treatment for neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s.
Two thousand years ago the Roman statesman Cicero opined that the diseases of the mind are more destructive than those of the body. Many would agree with him today, but advances in life science research and technology have brought hope to those suffering from neurological diseases. One of the stars of the Finnish industry is Hermo Pharma, which is developing novel treatments for neurological diseases.
“From the research standpoint, I see that we have top level basic research in Finland, with a flavour of commercial product thinking involved,” says Hermo Pharma’s CEO Juhani Lahdenperä. “We see very good concepts on a regular basis popping out from academia. There have been successful industrial collaborations between the Neuroscience centre and industry delivered, and I trust that in the future they will make an even closer relationship with major industrial players.”
Hermo Pharma itself was born in academia, being founded in 2008 by professors Mart Saarma, Eero Castrén, Heikki Rauvala and Henri Huttunen.
Business and research
“We have such a great relationship with the University of Helsinki and our founders there,” continues Lahdenperä. “They can provide more inventions than us or even established small biotech companies can take forward. We also get a great deal of scientific and medical advice from our founders about taking our products forward. And they are needed for our business development efforts to accurately communicate the scientific basis for the potential industrial partners.”
Yet Lahdenperä knows good business skills are just as important as good research. It is especially important for researchers to have an understanding of the fundamentals of capitalism and the market economy.
“I have suggested on many occasions that we should pay attention to how we educate our life science students to deliver to them a good mind-set of general management thinking,” he says. “Additionally, we should provide national and international internships for our students to make them top notch businesspersons in the future. This does not necessarily mean that these students end up in industry, but they might be very good scientists as active collaborators with industrial players. I think that what is required in the future from scientists to be successful as well.”
He believes the marriage of business and research early in the training of new scientists will have a synergistic effect in the future.
“Finland has dedicated senior scientists and very good future prospects in young scientists,” Lahdenperä explains. “I think the interaction with commercial players will take us into a very productive phase not only in terms of top science, but also delivering innovation to industry and eventually to market.”
Amblyopia and Parkinson’s
A burgeoning segment of the industry is therapeutic neurogaming, where patients use a broad array of inputs, such as brain waves or pupil dilation, to play games which are specially designed to help their neurological processes.
“Exploding,” is how Lahdenperä describes therapeutic neurogaming. “The brain has a lot of potential in it. However, I think to reveal that potential, gaming alone does not do it; you need to also combine pharmaceuticals which enable the utilisation of the full potential of the brain.”
Hermo Pharma is concentrating upon two main programs. Their product to treat amblyopia, sometimes known as lazy eye, is in Phase II. Their conserved dopamine neurotrophic factor protein therapy for Parkinson’s disease is in pre-clinical stage, and the first human studies could begin next year.
“We are about to complete pre-clinical proof-of-concept studies with non-human primates,” says Lahdenperä. “It seems to me that we have the best-in-class molecule under development for disease modified treatment of Parkinson’s disease.”
Science fiction coming true
Last spring Hermo Pharma received significant venture funding from Avera, the Helsinki University Funds, and a number of private investors, including ex-Roche research and development head Jonathan Knowles. In March 2013 it was selected as a finalist for Red Herring’s Top 100 Europe Award, a prestigious prize for private technology companies.
“2013 will be our greatest year thus far,” Lahdenperä concludes. “We get the data for Amblyopia in Adults treatment Phase 2a and we get the data for pre-clinical proof-of-concept for Parkinson’s disease. We will see if the data sets support further development of the products towards market.
“We have an outstanding team in the company. There is a great relationship and harmony. The team is very motivated and productivity is exceptionally high. Our founders have such a great vision about how central nervous system patients could be treated in the future that it sometimes seems like science fiction coming true. Interestingly, based upon data, they might very well be right with their visions.”
More about Hermo Pharma: www.hermopharma.com
Text: David J. Cord