RepliCel Life Sciences Inc. (RP:TSX.V; REPCF:OTCQB) is tackling a mix of medical and cosmetic issues that include hair regeneration, repair of painful and debilitating tendon injuries and rejuvenation of damaged skin.
In this interview with The Life Sciences Report, R. Lee Buckler, the company’s new vice president of business and corporate development, discusses his firm’s innovative technology platform and the upcoming milestones that could affect its shares.
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The Life Sciences Report : Lee, you’ve made a recent career change and are now an executive at RepliCel. Tell us about that.
R. Lee Buckler : As of Oct. 7, I have been appointed vice president of business and corporate development for RepliCel Life Sciences Inc., which is engaged in development of cell-based regenerative medicine therapeutics in Canada, Europe and Japan through our licensing partner, Shiseido Company Ltd. (4911:TSE). I found RepliCel to be a very interesting company poised to go on an exciting run, and that enticed me to join the team.
TLSR : Prior to your work with RepliCel, what experience had you had in the cell therapy industry?
RLB : In 2000, I left the practice of law to join Allen Eaves in the Stem Cell Technologies group of companies, where I ran a company called Malachite Management Inc. In 2006, I was recruited by Progenitor Cell Therapy to run its business development, marketing, communication and sales before the NeoStem acquisition.
In 2008, I founded my own consulting firm, called the Cell Therapy Group (CTG), which focused exclusively on the cell therapy industry. In the early days, we did some communications work for clients, but for the bulk of my tenure with CTG, we were involved in a wide range of planning and business development work. Some of it was transactional, but other aspects included market and competitive intelligence, building strategies, identifying partners, targeting partners, engaging in partnership discussions on behalf of clients and the like. I also worked with fund managers and investors through education, namely technology and platform explanations.
Over the past year, I worked as a consultant and on the board of directors positioning TheraVitae Inc. (private) for a merger with a company listed on the Toronto Venture Exchange. The merger is expected to complete in early November, and the company will be renamed Hemostemix Inc. I helped TheraVitae raise several million dollars as part of that process. Being on the road giving presentations to prospective investors is a new skill set for me, but I’ve found I really enjoy this side of the business.
TLSR : You are an attorney by training, but I see from your curriculum vitae that you did a couple of stints as a medical laboratory technician while you were still in law school. Is that what led you to the life sciences field?
RLB: Yes. I always joke with people that I didn’t get to the cell therapy/regenerative medicine industry through education–I got here more by osmosis. I was not a silver spoon kid; I had to work my way through school. So while I was studying to be an attorney, I ended up working in the lab of a leading cardiovascular investigator, who was involved in some clinical trials at the time. I was mainly doing grunt work, but it exposed me to an environment where people were extremely dedicated to their sciences and to doing something novel. I was exposed to the excitement that builds when people truly believe what they’re doing could revolutionize the way people are treated.
I’ve always felt a little bit like an outsider in an industry of people who belong here. While that may feel uncomfortable from time to time, it also affords me a unique perspective that others don’t have. While others in the industry tend to focus on vertical specialties, I’ve come to specialize in a macro view of this industry. My focus has been very horizontal, which gives me a perspective of the industry that not many people are able to see.
TLSR : What kind of work has RepliCel been doing in the cell therapy field?
RLB : When CEO and President David Hall took over the company in 2011, it was built around hair regeneration. That is still an important part of our portfolio; however, he had a vision for broadening the technology and building a platform, which the company has now executed.
We are preparing to launch a very significant Phase 2 trial using our RCH-01 (dermal sheath cup [DSC] cells) for hair regeneration. This is a cellular injection–a cell transplant rather than a hair transplant–and is an important evolution because hair transplant is limited by three very significant factors.
First, when transplanting hair follicles from one location on your scalp to another, there are only so many follicles available to harvest. With a cell transplant, there is no limit to the number of cells we can grow to use in regenerating poorly functioning hair follicles. Second, hair transplantation only achieves a satisfactory result when performed by a gifted surgeon, of which there are few.
A simple cell injection takes the art out of the procedure–particularly when combined with our proprietary injection device designed to optimally deliver the cells into the scalp. Finally, hair transplantation is not an option women find attractive for a number of reasons, and a significant population of women suffer from hair loss.
TLSR: How is RepliCel working to ensure this therapy will be effective in both the short and long term? What prevents the dermal sheath cells from ceasing to grow hair once they are in the locale where the original follicles quit producing hair?
RLB: The cells we are using to address pattern baldness (androgenetic alopecia) are taken from a cell population found at the base of the hair follicle.
These DSC cells are used to produce our RCH-01 product. Research has demonstrated that these cells are responsible for the reorganization of the hair follicle, which is a mini-organ that organizes upon an unknown signal. Our research leads us to believe this cell population is responsible for hair regeneration.
We source our particular cells from hair follicles isolated from the back of the scalp, between the ears, because most balding people retain this area of hair. This hair is insensitive to the androgen hormone (DHT), which causes hair loss, making these hair follicles prime candidates for our hair regeneration product.
As to the question of whether this will be a durable response–how long the hair will last–this is one of several questions both we and Shiseido are targeting in our respective upcoming pattern baldness trials. We’re designing this next phase to look at dosing. We’re also looking at frequency of treatment: One cohort of the study gets a single treatment, another gets a second treatment at day 91.
But we’ll also be following these patients for a considerable length of time, to see whether the intended effects are maintained or whether they diminish over time.
Even though there are only a proposed 160 participants, utilizing different dosing and different injection points throughout the scalp, there will be 396 treatment sites, or data points, that we will be able to gather from those 160 patients, in addition to the data to be gleaned and shared from the trial Shiseido is funding in Japan.
These questions are great–effectiveness and duration of effect–and we have an obligation to answer them, which is why the trials are designed the way they are.
TLSR: What else is RepliCel working on at the moment?
RLB: We have another population of cells derived from the hair follicle (the non-bulbar dermal sheath cells [NBDS cells]) that we believe is a platform capable of generating multiple products for various indications. These cells can be readily expanded, and it turns out they are highly expressive of type 1 collagen. Our first trial with these cells will be using our RCT-01 product for the treatment of chronic Achilles tendinosis.
Up to 90% of healthy tendon is comprised of well-constructed type 1 collagen, and a number of indications manifest in patients due to the loss of type 1 collagen production in the endogenous cells, one of which is Achilles tendinosis.
Tendons often are not well vascularized, and after a series of injuries and as a patient ages, the endogenous fibroblasts are exhausted of their ability to continue to produce the type 1 collagen necessary to support healthy tendons. RepliCel’s predicate science is built around the injection of autologous (harvested and administered back to the same patient) fibroblasts capable of producing the kind of collagen needed to restore the patient to healthier function and better pain scores.
TLSR : Do you have evidence of actual tendon regeneration?
RLB : In three tendinosis-related clinical trials performed using a similar cell type, which has now been licensed into the company, MRI imaging shows that tendon treated with this cell type was much more akin to healthy, young, functioning tendon than what the patients had prior to injection of cells.
This is an exciting platform, and the company is about to launch a Phase 1/2 trial in chronic Achilles tendinosis. We believe the cells could also have application in other indications, including jumper’s knee, golfer’s elbow, tennis elbow and torn rotator cuffs, as well as in a number of dermatological applications. Late this year, we will launch a Phase 1 study in healthy volunteers to look at the ability to regenerate the underlying tissue of skin in patients who have aging or sun-damaged skin.
TLSR : Achilles tendinosis and androgenic alopecia are very different indications. Androgenic alopecia is a hormone-dependent condition, while Achilles tendinosis is trauma-related.
RLB : That’s a great point. Even though both of these studies–tendon repair and hair regeneration–use cells derived from the hair follicle, we’re working with two very different cell populations. As a result, they have the ability to elicit very different, targeted responses.
TLSR : RepliCel’s shares have suffered considerably over the past six months. What caused the dip and what is the company doing to fix the issue?
RLB : The fact of the matter is the company was delayed in progressing to its Phase 2 trial for RCH-01 in hair regeneration because of an issue with the supply of a critical growth media. The new media wasn’t producing the same results, so we had to go back to the drawing board and discover what the problem was. The comparability data is now coming in to support our belief that we’ve solved that problem. We have four trials expected to launch in the next few months (three of ours and one of Shiseido’s). Two of these are expected to give clinical readouts late next year. Until we are a company executing clinical trials, we are a company talking about executing clinical trials, and certain investors grow understandably impatient.
I’m very pleased that in October we submitted an application to Health Canada for the proposed Phase 1/2 clinical trial for chronic Achilles tendinosis. This triggers a 30-day window during which Health Canada can provide a No Objection Letter allowing us to proceed with the trial.
This event is the initial trigger for a cascade of catalysts anticipated over the following months related to this trial, as well as our proposed Phase 1 clinical trial in Germany for aging and sun-damaged skin, our proposed Phase 2 trial for pattern baldness (androgenetic alopecia) in Germany, and Shiseido’s upcoming trial for pattern baldness in Japan.
We’ve been on the road for several weeks, crisscrossing the U.S., Canada and Japan, talking to investors, analysts and potential partners. We are pleased with the level of interest being generated, and believe that once we demonstrate we are executing on schedule, we will generate increased support.
TLSR : Is it possible that all these milestones will be met by the end of 2014?
RLB : We are working very hard to make that happen. I believe we’re on target to have our three clinical trial application filings submitted by year-end. We expect Shiseido to file its clinical trial application early in Q1/15.
We are, of course, dependent on regulatory clearance to initiate any trial, but we have had very active dialogues with the regulators overseeing all our proposed trials, and are submitting precisely what has been discussed. As mentioned, we have now filed the first of our three applications. The second trial application proposes to use a product (RCS-01) developed from the same platform technology, so the clinical-regulatory team can leverage much of the work already done to get the second application filed.
One thing to note is that the dermatology and tendinosis trials are relatively quick studies to enroll. We’ve been in constant dialogue with the principal investigators of the RCT-01 trial in chronic Achilles tendinosis, and they assure us there’s a pipeline of patients waiting to enroll in the study. The RCT-01 tendon trial is going to be a 28-participant study, and the RCS-01 in skin rejuvenation is a proposed 28-participant study design as well, but using healthy volunteers. The RCH-01 hair regeneration study is going to extend over a longer period of time, because it targets 160 participants. But the RCT-01 and RCS-01 studies will be relatively quick to enroll and to follow up on, and we expect data in 2015 for both of those.
Both of these studies are randomized, placebo-controlled and specifically designed to provide measurable and material biologic and mechanistic data that we will use to drive partner discussions. Remember that the company’s business model is to codevelop assets with partners who understand the markets and have proven commercialization capabilities.
We are excited about being in the position we are now in, poised to imminently execute on three clinical trials, finalize the development and validation of our propriety injection device (which has licensable applications for acellular injectables), capitalize on our partnership with Shiseido and the innovative regulatory pathway for regenerative medicines in Japan, which provides a window to early-market access for our pattern baldness treatment, and to execute on one or more additional licenses with codevelopment partners in the near term.
TLSR: Thank you very much for your insight, Lee.
RLB: Thank you.
R. Lee Buckler is vice president of business and corporate development with RepliCel Life Sciences Inc. Prior to working with RepliCel, he was the managing director of Cell Therapy Group, a firm he formed in 2008, where he did business development consulting for companies and organizations in or interested in the cell therapy sector. Buckler served six years as executive director of the International Society for Cellular Therapy, and just over two years as director of business development for Progenitor Cell Therapy.
He is on the editorial advisory boards of the journal Regenerative Medicine and the BioProcess International magazine, as well as the co-chair of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine’s Communications and Education Committee. Buckler cofounded Cell Therapy News, founded Cell Therapy Blog, cofounded Regenerative Medicine Jobs, founded and continues to manage the LinkedIn Cell Therapy Industry Group, and is an active industry commentator in publications and in social media. He serves on numerous industry conference advisory boards, is an advisory board member for BioCision and RoosterBio, and is on the board of directors for Hemostemix. He has a bachelor’s degree in education and a law degree.