On their own again

Pfizer sells cholesterol therapy-focused Esperion Therapeutics

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ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Five years after spending $1.3 billion to acquire Esperion Therapeutics Inc., a biopharmaceutical company focused on the discovery and development of high density lipoprotein (HDL)-therapies for the treatment of cardiovascular disease, Pfizer Inc. announced last month it has sold the company to an entity funded by a syndicate of investors.
Following the sale, Esperion, which has operated as a separate research division of Pfizer since 2003, returns to its past status as a privately held, independent enterprise. Pfizer retains a financial interest in the company. The $22.8 million tranche financing was co-led by Aisling Capital, Alta Partners and Domain Associates and also included participation by Arboretum Ventures.

As part of the spinout from Pfizer, Esperion will have access to the resources and scientific expertise it developed during its time with Pfizer, including a small molecule dual inhibitor of fatty acid and cholesterol synthesis for the treatment of dyslipidemias. Esperion will further develop that lead program as well as other potential HDL-related therapeutics, says CEO, President and Co-Founder Dr. Roger Newton.

"Re-establishing Esperion as a privately held entity ensures that the programs we have obtained will continue to advance as potentially important therapeutics," Newton says. "Without Pfizer's support, we would not have this opportunity to focus on these potential opportunities."

Although Shreya Jani of Pfizer Global Media Relations declined to speculate on any new research efforts Pfizer will pursue following the sale of Esperion, Pfizer Global Research and Development President Martin Mackay said in a press release that the spin-off "shows the company is embracing new strategies to refocus its R&D and create value from exited compounds."

"This transaction also enables Esperion to pursue its interests as a Michigan-based life science company while allowing Pfizer to support a new research venture and be involved in Esperion's potential success," Mackay stated in the press release
Esperion was founded in 1998 by Newton and members of the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis (now Pfizer) team, which discovered and developed atorvastatin, the compound which later became known as the cholesterol-reducing drug Lipitor. In 2000, Pfizer merged with Warner-Lambert and acquired full rights to Lipitor. Pfizer acquired Esperion in 2003, but Esperion negotiated to be maintained as a separate entity because "the technology and expertise we had was not duplicated in Pfizer," Newton says.

In 2006, Pfizer cancelled its development of torcetrapib, a drug that increases production of HDL and reduces LDL, when more patients than expected died as a result of taking torcetrapib and Lipitor versus taking Lipitor alone. Losing close to $1 billion on the failed drug and the ensuing lawsuits "turned the tide with respect to Pfizer's enthusiasm about HDL-related therapies," Newton says.

"Two months after the announcement, Pfizer made the decision to close all of its R&D facilities in Michigan, and 2400 people lost their jobs," Newton says.

Esperion would like to remain in Ann Arbor as it "stays the course" and works to commercialize a novel class of HDL-related drugs, Newton says.

"In this case, a phoenix didn't rise from the ashes, but a phoenix was reborn," he says. "We're now free and clear to pursue this with as much effort as we want and any other technology we bring in on our own. We'll obviously have a commitment to Pfizer in this particular arena down the road, and I am sure they are very interested to see how we are going to grow and create value for them through this particular compound." DDN

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