Home Education Regeneron co-founder talks drug process, importance of science

Regeneron co-founder talks drug process, importance of science

Dr. Salomon Amar, right, professor of pharmacology at New York Medical College, introduced Regeneron’s George D. Yancopoulos to the audience. Photo by Joe Bebon

It’s not every day that the co-founder of a multibillion-dollar biotech company provides an in-depth presentation in an intimate classroom setting. Therefore, it was no surprise that a packed crowd attended a recent seminar at New York Medical College in Valhalla.

Held on July 11 and dubbed “Building A Better Biotech: The Regeneron Story,” the seminar featured Dr. George D. Yancopoulos, founding scientist, president and chief scientific officer of Tarrytown-headquartered Regeneron. The company boasts six FDA-approved drugs, breakthrough technologies and a workforce of more than 6,500 employees across its Northeast and European footprint. Its medicines and development pipeline cover a range of conditions, including allergic and inflammatory diseases, heart disease, cancer, infectious diseases and pain, among others.

Speaking to a diverse group of students in casual wear and faculty members in lab coats and suits, Yancopoulos discussed the company’s many achievements over its 30-year history. He also shared insights into the challenging pharmaceutical industry and his broader views on the importance of science.

Yancopoulos teamed up to build Regeneron with Dr. Leonard S. Schleifer, company founder, president and CEO, in 1989. According to Yancopoulos, the company came from “very modest beginnings right across the street” from NYMC and had worked closely with the college in the biotech’s early years.

As for the partners’ vision, he said, “We wanted to build a different kind of company, one that was started and run by scientists that had that ability to go from an idea to an important new medicine – and to do it not once, but over and over again.”

However, he warned, success does not come fast or easy.

“I don’t think many of us appreciate the numbers – the dollars, the cost and the time – and how really humbling and sobering the process is,” he said, noting that there are thousands of companies vying for the few dozen FDA drug approvals issued each year.

In addition to the billions of dollars spent on each drug’s research and development, the whole process can take 10 to 20 years, he added, with the vast majority of experimental medicines ultimately failing. 

“Some people consider us an overnight success after 20 years of failure,” he quipped. “We didn’t become profitable for 25 years.”

Yancopoulos suggested the industry hurdles underscore how collaborating with and engaging “the brightest minds in the world” is essential to conquering the difficult process.

“I think that in order to do science on a really large scale, great scientists have to work together and be somewhat ego-less,” he said. “None of us could’ve done this on our own.”

Then, Yancopoulos explained Regeneron’s drug discovery and development process to the audience. Simply put, the company “bet it all on genetics.”

Yancopoulos said that there are real-life X-Men, people with genetic mutations that create special powers or weaknesses. “That was the whole basis of our company, the notion that there were human beings with ‘protective’ and ‘susceptibility’ genes,” he said.

For example, he showed photos of a circus performer with strong resistance to pain and a very muscular boy, both of whom had types of the aforementioned protective genes.

Regeneron wanted to study such mutations using mice but was initially met with skepticism from financial analysts, who Yancopoulos said “thought I was nuts” to focus more broadly on imagination and ideas. “They said, ‘Where’s the product? What are you going to sell?’ And I told them that this is how we’re going to figure out which gene we want to target, which we’ll create a drug solution for,” he said.

Regeneron ended up developing its proprietary VelociGene technology, which enables the company to create “genetically humanized” mice on which to study human mutations and diseases, test thousands of theories and confirm therapeutic targets.

In fact, the company was able to engineer what Yancopoulos called a “jacked” mouse by replicating the same genetic mutation of that muscular boy. (The picture of said mouse looked like the rodent version of Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

The company has also used VelociGene to create its VelocImmune technology, which produces mice with human immune systems and allows the company to optimize specific human antibodies.

Regeneron used its revolutionary technologies to develop Dupixent (dupilumab), one of the company’s FDA-approved medicines. The drug treats moderate-to-severe atopic dermatitis, and Yancopoulos said he gets emails thanking him for helping alleviate the “horrible” skin condition.

He showed the crowd before and after photos sent to him by a physician of a young girl with severe atopic dermatitis. Yancopoulos said the child patient was “miserable” and the family “devastated” by her condition. With Dupixent treatment, though, the results were what he called “a miracle.” Audience members audibly gasped upon seeing the after photo, and Yancopoulos explained that the drug provides “average responses of 70 to 80 percent clearing – and the itch goes away.”

These types of results and personal accounts are the best part of his job, he said.

Yancopoulos also said he believes Regeneron has found the “key pathway” for tackling all allergic diseases and there are many more applications for the company’s technologies likely to lead to even more FDA-approved medicines.

In closing his presentation, Yancopoulos reiterated his passion for the power of science and its ability to improve human suffering.

“To me, it’s all about seeing incredible stories about drugs, all invented here, that end up making major differences in patients’ lives,” he said. “It has really been a privilege and an honor to live the dream.”

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