How YourChoice realised that in niclomaside, a contraceptive drug, they had a potential Covid-19 treatment … and immediately created ANA Therapeutics

May 27, 2020

Lots of companies have pivoted during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Companies from Burberry to Louis Vuitton sprang into action making protective equipment and hand sanitiser. Airbnb shifting to online experiences when its physical travel and accommodation business was decimated.

But the most urgent pivots are in healthcare, in the search for Covid-19 treatments.

Akash Bakshi, Nadja Mannowetz, and Andrew Bartynski are the co-founders of University of California, Berkeley-based biotech company YourChoice Therapeutics. When they realised that the drug they were working with, currently with completely different applications, had potential to be repurposed as a Covid-19 treatment, they immediately changed course.

Here’s Nadja talking about their original contraceptives business:

YourChoice was studying niclosamide, “a drug that had been thoroughly relegated to the dust bin of history” in spite of its safety and efficacy, for use as a spermicidal contraceptive. They had just filed with the USA Food and Drug Administration in early March 2020 when, in what was initially a joke, someone asked out loud whether niclosamide might be an effective treatment for Covid-19. That became their new mission.

It didn’t take much searching to find out that the drug had been tested against SARS, in the 2003 pandemic, and had proved effective against the replication of that virus. The virus that causes Covid-19 is closely related, so the team believed they had not just good reason but a moral obligation to start investigating whether niclosamide would also would also treat and possibly even prevent Covid-19.

ANA Therapeutics, their reimagined company (Akash, Nadja, Andrew!), was born. It was only a few more weeks before their analysis showed that showed not only that the drug prevents SARS-CoV-2 from replicating, but that “it does so more effectively (at a lower concentration) than any of the drugs currently being tested in the clinic.” From that moment, especially since they were the only biotech company with access to clinical-grade niclomaside, they were determined to get the drug into a phase 3 trial.

Along the way, from investors to suppliers to manufacturers, ANA Therapeutics had the unique experience of being a startup to which “no one said no, and everyone said yes.” This has allowed the company to move forward quickly alongside the many other biotech efforts looking for a vaccine. The whole industry, including the FDA, is moving at never-before-seen speeds in order to, as Akash told me, “take multiple shots on goal.”

I learnt about their story from Eric Ries, author of the Lean Start Up, in his Apple podcast interview with the ANA team.