Five questions for Aratana CEO Steven St. Peter

It's been a productive couple of weeks for Aratana Therapeutics ($PETX). On October 10, at the Annual Veterinary Cancer Society meeting in St. Louis, MO, investigators working with the company presented key data on two of its lymphoma drugs. Then, last Monday, Aratana announced that it completed a global licensing agreement with Atopix Therapeutics of the U.K. to develop and commercialize a treatment for the skin condition atopic dermatitis in companion animals.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Aratana CEO Steven St. Peter last week to chat about these developments, and more generally, the prospects for the animal health industry going forward. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

FierceAnimalHealth: Among the data presented at the Veterinary Cancer Society meeting was a study of Aratana's and Novartis ($NVS) Animal Health's monoclonal antibody to treat B-cell lymphoma--a canine version of the blockbuster human drug Rituxan (rituximab)--in conjunction with chemo. What were the key takeaways from that study?

Steven St. Peter: We have a conditional approval from the USDA on that drug and we've finished the studies needed for full approval, and I can tell you in our minds, the data show the drug is safe and it prolongs survival. But the question that oncologists have is how does it work with chemotherapy? Do I get better overall survival if I put it on top of chemo? Or if I start with chemo and then switch to the antibody, can I get the same results with fewer side effects?

So we initiated a couple of studies. In one that was presented, 24 dogs got four weeks of a combination chemo therapy, and then they were randomized, so some of the dogs got the monoclonal, and some of the dogs get nothing. The median progression-free survival of the dogs that didn't get anything was 93 days. But the dogs that got the antibody, they had a progression-free survival of 167 days. Overall survival was 177 days vs. 325 days for the dogs that got the antibody. It's a lot like the Rituxan story in humans.

Steven St. Peter

FAH: What kind of feedback did you get from veterinarians attending the meeting about that drug and others you are developing?

SSP: The oncologists are so ready for innovation. They talked about the fact that veterinary oncology has really been on a plateau for 18 years and hasn't made progress in terms of new therapies or even impacting overall survival. What they're really starved for is new therapies to change that. We think the monoclonal antibody story did exactly that in human medicine--it added to overall survival but it also made the therapy much more tolerable. They're really excited to see canine-specific approaches to these dilemmas that they face.

FAH: You also started taking orders for AT-005, your treatment for T-cell lymphoma in dogs that has a conditional approval from the USDA, which is priced between roughly $1,800 and $3,600 a dose depending on how it's used. How is that launch going so far?

SSP: During the introduction, we're giving veterinarians a 30% discount if they share data back with us about how they're using it and what the experience is like. Then we've committed to publish the data and share it so all veterinarians can understand how it's being used. We're very pleased with the launch. We're starting with the 24 sites that were running two of our trials and will roll it out further over 2015. We asked doctors at the conference to go to our website and sign up for what we call the "clinical experience program." We're very happy with the response so far.

FAH: The Atopix partnership is the latest in a string of licensing agreements formed by Aratana. It centers around the development of a CRTH2 antagonist to treat atopic dermatitis. What attracted you to the opportunity?

SSP: We identify unmet medical needs in veterinary medicine and then go out and look for mechanisms of disease that are known in human medicine and that may be relevant [to companion animals]. We had targeted atopic dermatitis, which affects both cats and dogs and represents a big market. Zoetis ($ZTS) launched a drug called Apoquel, which is a JAK-2 inhibitor that relieves itching. It's been a very big success, which is I think a testament to the unmet need.

The way we think about atopic dermatitis is that itching isn't the problem. The problem is certain cell populations that carry the cytokines that cause the itching, which then sets up this inflammatory skin condition. We were able to do some dog work during the option period [with Atopix], when we looked at the ability to impact those cell populations. We're confident that this is worth putting into development.

FAH: Much of drug development in companion animals is centered around dogs, but Aratana actually has 7 programs focused on cats. What's attractive about that market?

SSP: Cat owners do get their cats treated with chemo. You've obviously dealing with a smaller animal, so the technical issues become problematic. A chemo infusion in a cat can be a nightmare, so you have to use sedation in some cases. Better tolerated therapies like monoclonals could really help cats in a dramatic way.

We think in general there may actually be a big unmet need in cats. Animal health companies tend to focus on dogs and they expect the veterinarians to use the dog products for cats, which is crazy. The reason you do development in dogs is because dogs are not small humans. And the reason you do it in cats is because cats aren't small dogs. Cats are brought to the vet a lot less often than dogs are, but that may be because there aren't as many therapies for cats. We're very proud of the fact that we're funding that work in cats and moving it forward. -- Arlene Weintraub (email | twitter)