“BioEnterprise has played a very useful role in lining up and putting us in contact with people who may be interested in our drug projects.”
Arthur M. “Buzz” Brown, M.D., Ph.D. established ChanTest Corp. in Ohio in 1998. The company was a contract research organization that tested compounds for more than 500 global pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and partnered with them to speed the drug development process for the release of better and safer drugs.
In 2014, ChanTest was acquired by Charles River Laboratories International for $59 million. Dr. Brown continues to serve as Scientific Advisor to ChanTest and recently founded a new drug discovery company, MemChan Pharma.
The company first started in 1989 as ChanGene, when Dr. Brown was Chairman of Physiology and Biophysics at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. A trained cardiologist and well-published researcher, Brown had developed a method for assessing cardiac risk in drugs with in-vitro assays.
He moved to Cleveland in 1994 to become Vice President of Research at MetroHealth System and a faculty member at Case Western Reserve University. In 1998, after consulting on cardiac risk for major drug companies, Brown incorporated ChanGene as ChanTest in Ohio. Brown and his wife, neuroscientist Diana Kunze Ph.D., started the company in a small room with one other employee who still works with them.
“At that time we had the great good luck of leveraging research funds from the State of Ohio, which had turned a substantial amount of its tobacco awards to funding research, and we were expert enough and lucky enough to get a couple of those grants,” said Dr. Brown.
They also greatly benefited from the unique ability of their preclinical assay to assess clinical cardiac risk in drugs which enabled pharmaceutical companies to fail candidates much earlier in the drug discovery process, potentially saving millions of dollars.
“So if you look at the preclinical process, from identifying your target, getting your lead compounds and carrying them through the absorption, distribution, metabolism, and toxicity tests – carrying them through animal studies and putting the drug into people – that actually can run between $100 and $500 million over a 5-8 year span,” said Brown. “If you can fail early and fail for the right reasons, it maybe costs you between $20,000 and $100,000. So you can do the arithmetic and it’s pretty clear what the cost benefits are.”
At the time, cardiac risk – especially for non-cardiac drugs – became an alarming issue at the FDA. The agency was frightened that there was an epidemic of antihistamines, antibiotics and antipsychotic medications posing grave risk to patients. Reported cases of sudden cardiac death from billion dollar drugs like Seldane, the first non-sedating antihistamine, were associated with arrhythmias, and ChanTest’s assays could be used to detect the molecular target of these changes.
Marion Merrell Dow, the pharmaceutical company developing Seldane, employed a post-doctoral researcher who had worked with Brown at Baylor who knew there was a problem with one of the molecules in the heart causing the issue. ChanTest was able to identify the molecule and target the specific genes responsible.
“We had this happy coincidence of powerful biophysical techniques that enabled us to look at the function of the target molecule, we had genomics that let us identify the target molecule and we had stem cells that let us make human cells so you can pry the different components apart,” said Brown.
“So there were many things coming together that allowed us to make the tests more and more precise, specific, and sensitive.”
In 2002, Brown left his position at MetroHealth to work full-time on the company. At the time and to the present, ChanTest’s cardiac risk assays comprised 95% of the assays used by pharmaceutical companies in FDA submissions. “I didn’t have much of a clue about business, but people were paying good money for the assays, we did them well, and were profitable from the beginning” said Brown.
In 2007, private equity firm Ampersand Capital Partners bought a minority stake in ChanTest, and seven years later, Charles River Laboratories International acquired the company for $52 million.
ChanTest and its 60+ employees remain in Cleveland as Charles River Labs– as does Brown, who still consults for the company and has founded a new venture, MemChan Pharma, developing novel drugs and treatments for conditions such as contact dermatitis.
And he remains fascinated with the promise of integrating functional, genetic and stem cell technologies to generate huge amounts of data from which drugs can be culled. “Putting it all together and picking a winner in a therapeutic area is pretty damn interesting – like betting on a horse at the races!”