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Eurostars ALTHERAS Project

Many in Serge Bischoff’s position would have started taking work easy. But after forty years working for some of the world's most successful pharmaceutical companies, Bischoff gave up a comfortable post as head of a drug discovery program at Novartis and embarked on a biotechnology start-up at fifty-nine. ‘I mortgaged my retirement and left myself without any income for several years,’ he says. ‘It was an enormous personal risk, but I wanted the challenge of doing something new.’

‘I realised that the path being used to discover medicines wasn't the best one. It can only really end in failure with the exception of a few lucky accidents.’ Bischoff feels 95 percent of medicines fail because they are developed through simplistic methods. An old university friend, Michel Baudry, now dean of the Graduate College of Biomedical Sciences at California's Western University of Health Sciences, persuaded him computer modelling could make the process more effective by reproducing the cellular and molecular mechanisms of the brain. The pair decided to put Baudry's pioneering academic work to use to find solutions for brain diseases like Alzheimer's, which damages human memory, and the ability to think and function properly, progressively worsening over time.


Five years after co-founding Rhenovia Pharma, Bischoff's personal gamble and the company's innovative approach to drug development is starting to pay off. The company he presides as chairman and chief executive, with Baudry as vice-president and chief scientific officer, filed two patent applications in November for a product with the potential to revolutionise the way patients take medicine. During Eurostars project ALTHERAS under the lead of Michel Faupel, the company’s director for new technologies, they have developed a prototype for a skin patch called RHEpatch. It can be programmed to ensure patients with memory loss take correct doses of as many as seven different medicines at the times specified by their doctors. ‘Many of us have had elderly parents that had to take various tablets and sometimes forgot whether they had taken them and then took more than one, thinking they hadn't take them, which can be dangerous,’ explains Bischoff.


Patches that release substances into the skin are already on the market - like nicotine ones to help wean patients off tobacco - but most existing patches simply gradually release their contents into our bodies until they are removed. Rhenovia and its Swiss partner in the ALTHERAS project Portmann Instruments thought they could find a way to release individual medicines within the patch into the skin at specific times. Portmann, which specialises in medical instruments, designed a control panel that could be programmed by doctors or pharmacists. Small batteries would power an electrical circuit, firing pulses to activate the release of the individual medicines.

Although the patch is not yet a cure for Alzheimer's, it does help ensure that the existing treatments on the market can be better administered to forgetful patients. Bischoff also feels that the key to finding a cure for neurological diseases like Alzheimer's is likely to lie in combinations of molecules already developed. ‘Local doctors already combine medicines,’ he adds. ‘The patch helps to individualise treatment which has always been a pharmacologist's dream. Equally, if we discover a molecule is best taken at 3 in the morning, this way that is possible.’ 


The partners in the Eurostars project think the patch could interest not just manufacturers of medicines for patients with memory loss, but for all kinds of pharmaceuticals. They have also received inquiries from other industries like cosmetics that see a use for RHEpatch. The partners have decided to set up a spin-off dedicated to marketing and licensing their product. Rhenovia and Portmann are confident that once licensed to a manufacturer the patch could be sold on the market within a couple of years.


The patch has secured the viability of Rhenovia, which launched in 2007, just as the global credit crunch hit. Rhenovia's founders started the company with 50,000 euros of their own money, conscious of the large sums needed to carry out research and development in their field. Winning approval to develop the patch as a Eurostars project was a turning point. Interest in the company and its work snowballed and it has secured 6 million euros worth of funds and contracts since. ‘Without Eurostars we couldn't have done the patch at all or at least not at the moment,’ says Bischoff.

Aside from what its future spin-off could generate, the boost for Rhenovia from the patch could top 600,000 euros by 2020. While exploiting the intellectual property of the patch and looks ahead to fresh research, Rhenovia will have to grow quickly from its current 25 collaborators - doubling in France and in Boston, where it recently opened up a gateway to the Americas. As it seeks to secure financing for subsequent research, the company has opened a 2.5 million euros round of financing due to close in June.