Personal tragedies involving family and friends motivated this CEO to launch Peptilogics.
When thinking of life-threatening surgical risks, hip or knee replacement does not immediately spring to mind. Maybe it should.
No one knows that better than Jonathan Steckbeck, CEO and co-founder of Peptilogics. The replacement procedures aren't necessarily risky, but the infections that can occur after surgery are. Antibiotic resistant bacteria --often staphylococcus aureus-- can accumulate on the hard surfaces of the prosthetic and cause infections that are very difficult, if not close to impossible, to eliminate. This is what can cause knee replacement and other joint replacement surgeries to turn deadly.
Most prosthetic joint infections (PJI) are the result of bacteria already present in the body or introduced during the surgery or other procedures. The usual treatment is additional surgery and antimicrobial therapy, often taking place over a span of many weeks or months. These infections put the patient at a high risk of morbidity and the five-year mortality rate after catching one of these infections is 25%, according to Steckbeck.
"That's not common," he says. "Ever since we've had antibiotics, we've been able to control most types of infections. That this can’t be controlled in this day and age is alarming."
Steckbeck has seen loved ones struggle with PJI, including his father-in-law, who died from antibiotic resistant infection, and a family friend—a fit Navy fighter pilot who required multiple surgeries over 18 months before he was cured of the infection. Steckbeck says the pilot fears that the infection might return.
These tragedies motivated Steckbeck's first entrepreneurial venture. In 2013 he left his work in HIV research and launched Peptilogics.
"There's no effective drug to treat this infection," he says. "When my father-in-law passed, I thought there must be something more we can do to solve this problem."
With a PhD in biochemistry and molecular genetics and an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh, Steckbeck turned his research mind to business. He saw an opportunity to not only improve patient lives, but to also fill an unmet healthcare market need.
While the patient population for PJI is small, controlling devastating infection is life altering for the patient. It can also reduce costs by negating the need for 12 to 18 months of expenstive post-operative treatment. "Per patient direct costs are in the $100,000 range, and the total cost per patient for certain joints can be in the $500,000 range," Steckbeck says. "PJI ends up being a really large economic burden. We have an opportunity to bring a good therapeutic to patients and create a market around that."
More than 1 million total joint replacements are performed in the U.S. each year, a number projected to grow to nearly 4 million by 2030 due to the aging, active population.
PLG0206 is Peptoligics' tool to address persistent bacterial pathogens. It attacks bacterial pathogens within the biofilm that evade standard-of-care antibiotics by targeting and disrupting bacterial membranes to trigger bacterial cell death. If approved by the FDA, the anti-biofilm, anti-infective peptide therapy will be the first specifically indicated for the treatment of periprosthetic joint infection.
Still in investigational stages, PLG0206 has been granted FDA Orphan Drug, Fast Track and Qualified Infectious Disease Product Designations for the treatment of PJI. Peptilogics began dosing patients in October 2022 through its LOGIC-1 clinical trial.
The importance of computational technology
As Peptilogics designs better therapy for PJI patients, it is also pioneering machine learning methods and artificial intelligence that create previously unattainable efficiencies and accuracies. This works not just in biotech, Steckbeck says, adding that any business can benefit from using computational technology, even hospitals. The challenge is finding the right application to solve the problem.
"Using computational technology is going to be increasingly important no matter what business you're in," he says. "Companies need to have a base-level understanding of how some of these technologies work, so that they can apply them more effectively. It's how do you build and understand which tools can be applied to your problem, so that you can answer the question most effectively."
At Peptilogics, its computational design accelerates the discovery and development of peptide therapeutics by combining peptide research, AI, and machine learning to quickly extract insights from biomedical data. Traditionally, the industry uses more of a screening method for discovery, which takes much longer.
"Through advances in peptide synthesis technology and computational design, we can move beyond broad, random screening to chart the universe of functional peptides and design novel therapeutics," Steckbeck says. "We are trying from the very beginning to design for the characteristic that we want, better, faster, and cheaper."
These are the technologies that make scalable peptide drug design a reality, Steckbeck says.
"Using modern techniques around machine learning is how we believe we're going to be able to bring more solutions to patients."
Lessons learned in first biotech venture
Steckbeck credits his MBA for honing his entrepreneurial skills and giving him the balance needed to start a biotech from scratch. When speaking with others about to enter the field, he encourages them to broaden their education to include business.
"I tell grad students that learning business on a broad level is important if you think you might go the entrepreneurial route. It's a hard transition from the super detailed work of science to pulling back 30,000 feet and telling the business story, and a background in business helps," he says.
The biggest lesson he has learned, Steckbeck says, is how important it is to build a strong team. He suggests finding the best people possible for each role. "The biggest lesson I've learned is how important having a good team is," he says. "My job became much easier with a good team supporting me."
An additional benefit is if that team consists of "people who are actually really fun to work with, because a lot of what we do is really, really hard. It is hard on top of hard. If you don't have a good group of people that you want to work with every day, it's going to be that much harder," he says.
“To be at this point in modern medicine where we don't have good solutions for this type of infection bothered me. PLG0206 is something we can use to really change the outcomes for people.”
Jonathan Steckbeck, CEO / co-founder, Peptilogics,
Robin Robinson is a contributing writer for HealthLeaders.
Peptilogics' first target for its peptide biology is curing PJI, an infection Steckbeck has a personal connection to.
Peptoligics' lead clinical asset has been granted FDA Orphan Drug, Fast Track and Qualified Infectious Disease Product Designations for the treatment of PJI.
Using peptide technology, the biotech hopes to discover applications for other diseases, including cancer, cystic fibrosis, and rare genetic disease.