Gabi Hanna, MD of Lamassu Pharma is leveraging innovative and insightful technology to drive collaboration between academia and industry through translational research
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Gabi Hanna: My family has been doing very well, and we are very appreciative of our health, considering the circumstances. At the outset of the pandemic, when all work became remote, I decided to move to Ohio to be closer to my parents and other families, and I have been working remotely ever since. Having my kids close to their cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents is a blessing and made the impact of social distancing very minimal.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Lamassu Pharma.
Gabi Hanna: My background: My brother, Rabi, also an MD, and I grew up in Qamishli, Syria, near the Turkish border. My father was the Chairman of Commerce, so I grew up exposed to business, and the excitement of how business deals can help individuals, people, and countries grow. My first business venture was in the summer of 5th grade; I had a sugar and tea stand. It was so successful that I opened a second location and hired my first employee. I made more money that summer than the annual salary of the average worker in Syria. With that exception, every summer, my father would take me with him on his business trips, which I greatly enjoyed. As I watched him buying, selling, negotiating, analyzing, and making business deals, I felt the excitement of how an idea can translate to become a reality and grow day by day. The impact a single idea can have on the community by improving the incomes and livelihoods of the people. But we were also Christians living in the Middle East in a turbulent time, so there was always uncertainty about the future. I stayed in Qamishli through high school, then went to Aleppo for university and medical school. In 2005, I moved to the United States for my medical residency, which was followed up by a surgical internship at the University of Texas at Galveston. I finally started my career at Duke University as a postdoctoral fellow and research associate. But the goal was always to move back to Syria, after completing my residency and postgraduate training, to help in my own community. In 2011 the war broke out in Syria, making that permanent move home an impossibility, so I had to dream a new dream, and I leaned on my upbringing to get me there.
From early childhood, my family taught my siblings and me that the most important thing in life is people and that improving lives is the most noble thing any man can do with their time on Earth. I have always had this clear priority in whatever I try to accomplish with my time.
A dream to help millions of patients at once: So, my new dream became finding a solution to a major problem in medical treatment and innovation: despite billions of dollars being spent on medical research each year, very few research projects translate into positive outcomes for patients. What this means is that most medical research knowledge generated each year stays on paper and never goes anywhere else due to the complexities and costs associated with drug development.
I saw the research and knowledge at Duke University first-hand, recognized the potential of this research, and understood what was standing in the way of this knowledge reaching those it could really help. I was itching to do something that would make a real impact on people, but not just one at a time; I dreamed that by translating all of this knowledge into tangible medical benefits, I could help millions of people.
I took this problem and proposed solutions to the Dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, and the Duke Preclinical Translational Research Unit was born. Under my direction as co-founder and Executive Director, DPTRU was one of the first academic centers dedicated to accelerating the transfer of data and knowledge from academic research to commercially viable solutions and treatments that can directly benefit patients.
Lamassu Pharma becomes a reality: To fill specific treatment needs in medicine and overcome the slow pace of regulation associated with drug development, Rabi and I, along with my friend and colleague Dr. Greg Palmer, founded Lamassu Pharma, LLC in 2018—our second company—to expedite drug development and commercialization based on our previous work in translational research. Lamassu is currently focused on RABI-767, a novel small molecule lipase inhibitor drug candidate developed by the Mayo Clinic to treat severe acute pancreatitis. Today, there is no treatment, drug, or cure for severe acute pancreatitis, which kills around 18,000 people each year in the United States alone and causes lifelong complications in survivors.
While I’m working on translational research at DPTRU, my time at Lamassu is currently focused on driving RABI-767 to market. We know that the earlier we bring this drug to market, the earlier patients will benefit and that more lives may potentially be saved. In both cases, we’re helping to ensure that viable treatments make it to market and that companies don’t drop viable therapeutics. And it’s all towards the most important goal, the goal I’ve always had: to help as many patients as possible.
How does Lamassu Pharma innovate?
Gabi Hanna: Lamassu Pharma is a scientifically-driven company focused on collaboration between academia and drug development. We start by designing flexible drug pathways that combine best practices for business with advanced scientific solutions to accelerate the drug development process from early-stage through clinical trials. This combination increases the likelihood that viable drugs will go to market. By following this effective and sustainable process, we solve problems in early drug development from the business pipeline perspective, including poor reproducibility in the pre-clinical stage, probability of success at phase 1 and phase 2 clinical trials, the timing for patent life versus profitability, etc. You wouldn’t believe how many viable medical treatments stop short of the market because the project takes 15 years to succeed due to issues throughout the development process. The patent expires before the therapeutics can achieve profitability. For the first time, we’re applying proven business models usually reserved for go-to-market strategy and requirements usually reserved for human clinical trials to the entire drug development process, and it’s working. We see huge reductions in errors that typically hold up drug development and a rapid acceleration in the full process.
Our future goal is to continue developing solutions for previously untreatable diseases and bring more drugs to market more quickly and cost-effectively with a high success rate.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Gabi Hanna: The pandemic has presented several challenges and uncertainties for medical research and Lamassu. It’s been challenging to stay on schedule, especially in our life sciences division, because we have faced many logistical issues, from delays in shipments to operational shutdowns. However, we closed our Series A fundraising just prior to the onset of the pandemic, so we had secured stable funding. The other side of that coin is increased costs and losses to keep business operations running.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Gabi Hanna: Early operational shutdowns did have some impact on our workers and contractors; however, all of our staff are essential workers, and we can’t achieve our goals without them, so we quickly pivoted to get everything and everyone back online. We also worked with our vendors and partners on small logistical details that we usually don’t address. We recognized early on that the pandemic necessitated a different type of management and operations style, and we have been quite effective at keeping up productivity by making small changes.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Gabi Hanna: Right now, our customers are our board, shareholders, investors, and clinical partners, so keeping a very tight relationship with them is critical. We increased team meetings and email communications due to the lack of ability to meet in person, so video conferencing applications proved to be the most important tool for us over the past year.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Gabi Hanna: Lamassu Pharma did not receive any special government grants during the pandemic. At the onset of the pandemic, we had just completed Series A fundraising and received a $1.5m Small Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) unrelated to the effects of COVID-19. This allowed us to continue our research for RABI-767 nearly unhindered, and despite the ongoing nature of the pandemic, we expect to begin clinical trials of RABI-767 within the next few months.
Your final thoughts?
Gabi Hanna: It is very easy to become distracted by the coronavirus pandemic and the ever-changing world right now. I’m committed to remaining focused and persistent in achieving our goal: to quickly bring viable medical solutions to patients. If we focus and keep our eyes on the prize, we are more likely to achieve success.