Huntsville, Ala. — Huntsville’s growing biotechnology sector made a major move forward this week with FDA approval of the first human medicine invented here.

Tacey Viegas, left, and Mike Bentley pose in front of the tiny building just off South Memorial Parkway where a drug approved by the FDA Sept. 16, 2014, was invented 14 years earlier. Bentley invented the molecule at the heart of the drug and Viegas did its first developmental testing. (Lee Roop/LRoop@al.com)
Tacey Viegas, left, and Mike Bentley pose in front of the tiny building just off South Memorial Parkway where a drug approved by the FDA Sept. 16, 2014, was invented 14 years earlier. Bentley invented the molecule at the heart of the drug and Viegas did its first developmental testing. (Lee Roop/LRoop@al.com)

On Tuesday, Sept. 16, the FDA approved Movantik, as the drug is called by distributor AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, to fight a major side effect of pain treatment. It is expected to generate revenues of $1 billion a year.

Those billions won’t be flowing to inventors Mike Bentley and Tacey Viegas of Huntsville, however, because they sold the molecule the drug is based on years ago. Instead, the medication followed the modern path from laboratory to market through successively larger companies that could afford the huge costs of testing and production.

Though they did profit, Bentley said the point of this week is recognizing that Huntsville scientists “can develop valuable drugs, and we’re doing that.”

What it does

Movantik treats a serious problem – constipation – suffered by cancer patients and others taking opioid medications for pain. “Severe cases can cause severe problems,” Bentley said Friday, “and you cannot get out of the hospital if you’re constipated after surgery. That’s a huge financial problem, a medical care expense.”

Bentley and Viegas spoke in the airy, four-story wood and glass lobby of Huntsville’sHudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Cummings Research Park. It’s where more than two dozen biotech companies are following their path and building the city’s biotech industry.

Where it started

Movantik wasn’t developed at HudsonAlpha. It was developed 14 years ago in a small brick and metal-sided building on Mock Road off South Memorial Parkway.

There, the story began at Shearwater Polymers with a polymer invented by founder Milton Harris and sold to drug companies who attached it to their drug molecules to extend their life and effectiveness in the body.

Organic chemist Bentley had come from the University of Maine to work with Harris, a classmate at Auburn, and he thought of a way to use Shearwater’s polymer to block the constipation-causing property of opioids. The innovation was a way to unblock the constipation without blocking the opioid’s painkilling properties.

Viegas joined the team in 2002 after Shearwater itself was sold to a larger company. He ran the laboratory and animal tests that proved the molecule was ready for clinical testing in humans in 2005. The concept was sold yet again to an even larger company that could afford the cost of moving forward.

Where they are now

Bentley, 75, and Harris retired along the way, but both came out of retirement to co-found Serina Therapeutics, a biotech company at HudsonAlpha that is developing new drugs to treat Parkinson’s Disease and cancer. Viegas is Serina’s chief operating officer.

At a photo shoot in front of Shearwater’s original, shuttered headquarters on Mock Road, Viegas noted how this week’s big idea came from a small lab in a small building. Today, he said, small biotech companies have HudsonAlpha as a home and a help to get started.

“The idea that we want to get over,” Bentley agreed back in the institute’s lobby, “is that, yeah, we’ve got rockets and all of this stuff in Huntsville. But we can develop diagnostics and valuable drugs in Huntsville, and we’re doing it. We’ve got a thriving activity here at HudsonAlpha. We’re doing it even better.”

News Outlet: Huntsville Times/al.com
Date Published: Sept. 19, 2014