Lgenia in Fortville, made up of former Eli Lilly scientists, is among those trying to develop tuberculosis medications that don't have to be taken as often as current ones and are less expensive. Staff photo by Tom Russo
Lgenia in Fortville, made up of former Eli Lilly scientists, is among those trying to develop tuberculosis medications that don't have to be taken as often as current ones and are less expensive. Staff photo by Tom Russo
FORTVILLE — A group of scientists in downtown Fortville is working to help the poorest parts of the world battle one of its deadliest diseases.

They used to be colleagues at Eli Lilly and Co. Now they make up Lgenia, which is working to find a way to treat tuberculosis in places where current remedies are infeasible. The team is part of a group that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sponsors and which shares their goal.

Lgenia CEO Philip Hipskind, Ph.D., retired from Lilly Research Laboratories in 2017 before starting Lgenia in the Fortville Business Center in April 2018. He brought four of his former Lilly colleagues with him: David Mendel, Karen Lobb, Renhua Li and Greg Durst.

Tuberculosis is one of the top 10 causes of death and was the deadliest infectious disease in 2017, according to the latest data available from the World Health Organization. TB killed an estimated 1.6 million people in 2017, and 10 million people are believed to have developed the disease that same year.

“The disease itself… is a more complicated disease than anything I’ve ever worked on,” Hipskind said.

That’s because tuberculosis bacteria “hides out” in a substance in the lungs called caseum, he continued.

“Caseum is like cottage cheese, and if you don’t kill the bugs inside the cottage cheese, they’re going to relapse,” he said.

Hipskind said available medicines are not able to penetrate caseum and are usually metabolized and cleared from the body quickly.

“So unless you want a person in a third world country having to take a cup full of pills every hour, you have a problem,” he said.

Existing medications take six months to two years to work and come with many side effects, Hipskind said.

Lgenia is part of the TB Drug Accelerator Program, which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sponsors.

“If you’re going to tackle this disease, you should bet on this team,” Hipskind said of the program.

The program’s goal is to develop tuberculosis medications that don’t have to be taken as often as current ones and are less expensive to make.

“Our charge is to come up with a new drug that works in a month or less and is safe,” Hipskind said.

He said it’s a daunting challenge but one Lgenia doesn’t shy away from.

“It’s the kind of thing we live for,” he said.

Lgenia’s scientists conceive chemical compounds that could go on to become the faster-acting tuberculosis medications of the future. A laboratory in India synthesizes their ideas before sending the compounds to labs in Seattle; Fort Collins, Colorado; and Europe to test them on TB.

Hipskind said Lgenia did the work of about 60 projects last year for the price of about one-tenth that amount. They won’t know if any of them are successful for at least two to three years, he added.

Karen Lobb, a senior portfolio director at Lgenia, said if the company succeeds, it will make a “huge difference for tuberculosis patients around the world.”

“I can’t imagine a more fulfilling job,” she added.

Hipskind is well aware of how difficult it is to create medicines for complicated diseases. He spent his career at Lilly working on medications for ailments like diabetes, cancer and nervous system disorders. His research group put 17 compounds in clinical trials over 36 years. While that’s “a really impressive track record,” he said, none of the drugs were approved.

“That’s typical,” he continued. “If it was easy, they wouldn’t call it ‘research.’ They’d call it ‘search.’”

Hipskind’s group was able to achieve that impressive track record because it excelled at what’s called lead generation — the early stage of research.

“We were able to pick fruitful avenues that will lead to clinical compounds that can be used to test whether or not that compound is useful in a disease,” he said. “…If you don’t have the compound to try it, you don’t have a chance.”

His group’s success in lead generation inspired his new company’s name. He combined the words and added “ia” — Latin for “essence of” — to create Lgenia, or “the essence of lead generation.”

“It’s incredibly fun to have an opportunity like this to help people, to run a business, to make a difference,” he said.

-30 -

Copyright © 2019 Daily Reporter