Prof Matt Cooper: ‘it’s not about the money; it’s about the patients’

Inflazome, company he founded with Luke O’Neill, sold to Roche for an initial €380m

 

It all began with a chance meeting. Trinity immunologist Professor Luke O’Neill was attending a medical conference in Australia when he bumped into Matt Cooper, a chemistry professor at the University of Queensland.

“They say most businesses start like that. Businesses are always driven by people that get on well with each other,” says Prof Cooper, speaking after Inflazome, the company the two men founded, was sold to Swiss pharma giant Roche last week for an initial €380 million, a figure that may yet rise to a multiple of that.

“I’d like to say we met in a yoga studio, but no, we met in a bar. I gave a talk on antibiotics and superbugs and at the end of my talk I said ‘Look, I’m a chemist, I’ve got a team of chemists, if you need some help or I can make anything for you, then come and see me, we’d be delighted to collaborate’. And he came up to me at the bar and said ‘Did you mean what you said there, mate?’ And I said ‘Yeah, sure’. And then he got his phone out and said ‘What about this?’. And that’s how it started.”

That was in 2012 and led to four years of academic research on the role of inflammasomes in the human immune system before the two men established Inflazome, with Cooper as chief executive and O’Neill as chief scientific officer.

But what does it do? As Cooper explains it, the body’s immune system monitors damage to the body. It uses sensors to detect damaged tissues and inflammasomes are a group of these sensors. Inflammation is a standard immune response leading to repair of the damaged tissue. But when it becomes overactive, or chronic, it can lead to one of a host of inflammatory diseases – anything from arthritis to cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s or even Alzheimer’s disease.

“We have drugs that will stop progression of diseases, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s for example, but we still don’t have anything that will actually be disease modifying and can go to the root cause of the disease,” Cooper says.

Inflazome focused on one of these inflammasomes, NLRP3, which it saw was implicated in a range of inflammatory disease, and worked on developing a drug that would inhibit it, preventing the out-of-control inflammation that can prove so damaging.

“It was almost a blessing and a curse. I mean drugs in this space have potential in so many different indications. And one challenge we faced is which ones do you do first? It’s a pivotal question because, when you go into the clinic, obviously the costs and risks of that go up.”

The team spent the guts of four years poring over scientific and clinical evidence before focusing on two drugs for specific indications, both of which have now successfully concluded their phase one trials.

A straight speaker, Cooper is also generous in sharing credit for Inflazome’s success. As chief executive of the business, he is in front of the microphone but he insists “make sure to give Luke credit. He’s a great guy to work with”.

He describes the process behind Inflazome and its drug development as like having a baby, “but eventually, of course, the baby’s got to go to school and go to university, and it’s important to know, again for patients, what’s the right time to let that young kid go off and grow somewhere else”.

The sheer scale of the potential opportunity – and the costs involved – were factors behind the decision to sell the business.

“One of the major motivations to do a deal with a big pharma is creating that big capacity and bandwidth and logistics they have to get as many trials moving as quickly as possible so that, together, we have the best chance to get these medicines where they are needed most, to patients in a large variety of diseases.”

The decision on which opportunities Roche pursue is now out of Cooper’s hands but he is confident about the company’s “broad commitment” to the area.

Even before the Roche takeout, the success of the Inflazome team had been recognised with Cooper named as one of the shortlisted finalists in this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards as leader of one of the country’s top emerging businesses.

Inflazome is not alone in this space: Cooper is aware of eight companies chasing immune system modulators. But he’s not worried about the competition.

“For me it’s just shots on goal. If you want to get a drug to patients with these really sad diseases that affect us all eventually, or our families, the more shots on goal there are, whether it be Inflazome or someone else, the better it is for patients. So, I think it’s great.”

He says that roughly $300 million of venture capital has gone into start-ups in this space, with three of those now leading to significant exits in sales to Big Pharma – at least two of which could yet be for 10-figure sums if milestone targets are met.

“What amazes me now is the speed we can go from the fundamental science discovery, to getting a drug in a clinic. That gap is getting smaller and smaller now, which is also good news”, he says, noting that NLRP3, which has been the company’s focus, was only discovered in the past 20 years.

One of the big selling points for Inflazome’s therapy candidates is that they are small molecule drugs. In layperson terms, this means they are pills or capsules and that has two key advantages. First the costs of manufacture are much lower but they are also much easier to distribute and prescribe especially in less developed markets.

“When you want to go to other countries that don’t have these, you know, western world supply chain, it means you can take these drugs to places where a biologic wouldn’t be able to get. So, that’s a big advantage. It’ll be much more convenient and easier to get it to people.”

Headquartered in Dublin, Inflazome was in many ways a company for the Covid age – with a highly skilled team working mostly remotely from one another. Its research base was in the English university city of Cambridge, where Cooper had studied at one time, and it conducted its clinical trials in Australia.

Through it all, the company worked with a team of just seven though this rose to about 14, Cooper says, by the time it was sold.

Though Australian and working largely from Cambridge, Cooper is no stranger to Ireland. He is, he says, a quarter Irish, and has worked previously as an adviser for Science Foundation Ireland.

While he sees the State as particularly strong in technology, medtech and manufacturing technology, he thinks there are fewer examples of strong indigenous drug development businesses despite some recent successes.

“I’d say in terms of the structures, you know, Australia has a very generous R&D tax credit scheme, it has what’s called the Clinical Trials Network, which allows you to go very quickly in the clinical trials progression. So, there’s some examples that Ireland could look at,” he says.

Cooper is committed to staying with the business under Roche at least in the short term as it is integrated into the Swiss business. “Longer term, Luke and I are both of an entrepreneurial bent so we’ll see what happens,” he says.

“It’s not about the money,” he adds of the deal which yields multimillion euro payouts to its founders and generous returns to their backers. “Money comes, money goes. For me, money is a tool. I’ll probably reinvest some of the funds back into the next drug company to try and get drugs for people.

“I think it’s obviously nice; people work very hard. But that’s not the reason we do what we do. We do what we do because there are people that need the medicines and that’s the most important thing.”

And he remains excited by the potential for research on how the immune system works to deliver therapies for a whole range of diseases that currently have unmet medical need.

“Look, it’s incredibly exciting. Because it hasn’t been tried before. And I’m a big fan of, and Luke has said this as well, the things that are on the edge, outside the dogma. That’s where really great stuff happens.

Among potential targets are infectious diseases like Covid, with Cooper noting that Novartis currently has one of Inflazome’s competitor compounds in a clinical trial to see whether it can help tackle the pandemic.

“So, even in infectious disease, there are opportunities. The hope is, if it can work on a couple of these diseases, this could be a whole platform for a variety of new medicines. So, that’s clearly exciting.

“But we’re not there yet. We’ve got a long way to go. And I think this was a great deal with a fantastic company, Roche, to make sure these drugs have got the best chance they have to succeed for patients.”