San Diego Business Journal


CEO: John Longenecker.

Financial information: Not disclosed.

No. of local employees: Three.

Investors: Aberdare Ventures, Forward Ventures, De Novo Ventures, Lilly Ventures Management Co. LLC and Latterell Venture Partners.

Headquarters: Tentatively moving to the San Diego region.

Year founded: 2007.

Company description: Developing drugs to treat hemoglobin diseases such as sickle cell disease.

After being headquartered in two other cities in the space of three years, HemaQuest Pharmaceuticals Inc. is touching down in San Diego, a situation which brings the company — which is focusing on therapeutics to treat hemoglobin diseases — into the path of greater investment opportunity, according to its new chief executive officer.

Founded in 2007, HemaQuest actually started in Boston as a result of research coming out of Boston University School of Medicine. The firm’s former management team later moved to Seattle. While the company will continue to maintain an office in Seattle, the primary business focus will be out of San Diego. The company’s new management team is eyeing possible office space in the University Towne Center area in La Jolla.

“We’re essentially a virtual company at this point,” said John Longenecker, who was appointed CEO and president on Dec. 3.

“With less than 10 employees, we’re essentially in startup mode,” added Longenecker, former CEO of Favrille Inc., a San Diego drug company acquired by digital medical records provider MMR Information Systems Inc. in early 2009. Longenecker’s new management team is culled from the top ranks of Favrille, a public company that unsuccessfully attempted to develop a drug to fight non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In addition to Longenecker, the company has hired Dr. Richard Ghalie and Tamara Seymour as HemaQuest’s new chief medical officer and chief financial officer, respectively.

“I’m really looking forward to moving the corporate offices to San Diego, one of the largest biotech hubs in the nation,” said Longenecker of the privately held, venture-backed company, which is developing drugs to treat hemoglobin-associated diseases, most notably sickle cell disease. Hemoglobin is the main substance of the red blood cell. It helps red blood cells carry oxygen from the air in the lungs to all parts of the body.

Funds to Develop Treatments

Thanks to venture capital financing of $16 million in 2010, the company has sufficient funding to develop treatments for sickle cell disease, with experimental drugs in clinical trials, said Longenecker.

“We’re looking forward to initiating clinical trials for the treatment of this debilitating disease in the spring of next year. This is a very challenging health problem in an underserved community,” said Longenecker, referring to a genetic blood disorder that affects 80,000 patients in the U.S., primarily people of African-American descent.

“We hope to demonstrate that we can reduce the severity of pain crisis and other serious medical consequences associated with sickle cell disease without the toxicity and risks associated with current therapy,” said Longenecker.

The sole drug currently approved to treat the disease is a cancer chemotherapy drug called hydroxyurea, which can have serious side effects, according to HemaQuest researchers.

With a total of $32 million raised in the past few years, HemaQuest is developing “short-chain fatty acid” molecules for life-threatening blood disorders, said Seymour, the company’s new CFO and a longtime San Diegan.

The company has two experimental drugs now in the middle stage of drug development — one for sickle cell anemia and one for patients with lymphoma that’s associated with an infection of Epstein-Barr virus. If those trials are successful, it’s possible the company could enter the third and final phase of clinical trials as soon as next year.

International Market Potential

Despite the small size of diagnosed sickle cell patients in the U.S., Seymour believes the potential for sales could be international in scope.

“A small market in the U.S. doesn’t mean Big Pharma isn’t interested,” said Seymour, hinting at future strategic partnerships that could take the company’s therapeutics to market.

In the meantime, HemaQuest is husbanding its resources by outsourcing many functions: contract manufacturing, data management and other service providers.

“For the clinical trials, we’re using a clinical research organization rather than hiring a lot of people in-house,” said Seymour.

According to the American Sickle Cell Anemia Association, the disease is a major health concern. People with sickle cell disease can have lifelong disabilities. The average life expectancy is 42 years for men and 48 years for women.

To estimate the number of hospitalizations per year, the National Center for Health Statistics said hospital stays due to complications of sickle cell disease cost an estimated $475 million during a four-year period in which data was compiled.