CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dr. Fred Pashkow, front, and David Watumull are searching for the next big thing in cardiovascular drugs at Cardax Pharmaceuticals Inc.
Next big drug may come from fish feed
Cardax is working to make a heart drug from natural astaxanthin
Seven months after spinning off from Hawaii Biotech Inc. and creating a new company, David Watumull has opened the throttle on his next project: an attempt to create the next big thing in cardiovascular drugs from a substance once mainly used as a feed for salmon.
Think again, says Dr. Fredric Pashkow. A former vice president for medical affairs with the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventis Group, Pashkow has assumed the No. 2 position at Watumull's startup, Cardax Pharmaceuticals Inc., after having overseen the blockbuster drug Plavix, which is projected to reach sales of $6 billion globally this year.
Why leave such a huge job to join a fledgling company?
Pashkow, who also has been medical director of the Queen's Medical Center's Heart Institute in Honolulu, believes that Cardax's namesake drug could be huge.
"I really think Cardax is the first drug in a class ... that may be the next big thing," he says.
This optimism springs from the promise of a natural substance called astaxanthin. The substance has been used for years as a fish food that makes farm-grown salmon pink, and as a dietary supplement for people.
Cardax is essentially attempting to improve on the natural substance by manufacturing a pharmaceutical-grade astaxanthin pure enough to be prescribed as a cardiovascular drug. To protect its rights, Cardax has obtained a patent to use astaxanthin for cardiovascular treatments.
Pashkow and Watumull have created a presentation for investors showing how astaxanthin's anti-inflammatory qualities essentially quench the production of damaging oxygen free radical particles at the cellular level. Oxygen free radicals can be bad because they tend to oxidize certain types of cholesterol, causing all kinds of problems in the arteries, including heart attacks.
Substances that get rid of the oxygen free radicals are often called antioxidants. Although antioxidants are commonly found in many foods, as well as some vitamins, doctors can only recommend those foods as part of a healthy diet. Carrots, for instance, might be healthful, but they're not exactly the same as a pill that's been carefully tested in a lab and made under according to highly controlled conditions.
"You can't prescribe them as a drug," Pashkow says. "You can't say, 'I want you to eat three carrots three times a day.'"
Even before Cardax spun off from Hawaii Biotech, researchers were working to develop the drug. So far, the company has done a series of experiments on animals. Next, the company will seek approval from federal drug regulators to conduct tests on people. For this task, Cardax has signed on Thomas Goodin, who previously oversaw Sanofi-Aventis' clinical trials of cardiovascular drugs.
Watumull says clinical trials could begin by the middle of 2008, with two phases completed by 2009. At that point, Watumull says, the drug might be ripe enough that Cardax could have major opportunities from Wall Street or big pharmaceutical companies.
With cardiovascular drugs representing a market exceeding $20 billion in the U.S. alone, the potential is immense.
So far, that market has been filled by two classes of drugs. The first, called statins, block the formation of cholesterol, but can have unwanted side effects. Common statins include Zocor and Lipitor.
Next came something called anti-platelet therapy, which blocks the formation of blood clots and thereby reduces the risk of heart attacks or strokes.
Anti-inflammatory drugs such as Cardax are something entirely different, Pashkow says.
"This represents the third big wave of cardiovascular therapeutics in the U.S.," he says.