Dick Wurtman's Ideas Aren't So Crazy After AllGeoffrey Smith
The brain's intricate chemistry has obsessed Dr. Richard J. Wurtman for nearly 25 years. A neuroscience professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is an expert on how nutrition affects the brain. His research into such areas as obesity, sleep, and Alzheimer's disease has yielded some 70 patents. But in 1989, when Wurtman helped found Interneuron Pharmaceutical Inc. in Lexington, Mass., Wall Street balked. The reason: The company's first products were a dubious sports drink and a weight-loss drug. "I always thought they were a bunch of flakes," says Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Jeffrey Casdin.
Not anymore. In November, fruit-juice maker Veryfine Products Inc. agreed to mass-market the sports drink that Wurtman claims enhances athletic performance. And chemical giant American Cyanamid Co. will co-market the prescription-only diet drug that is sold in 40 countries outside the U.S. Cyanamid will also help fund studies needed for the drug to get Food & Drug Administration approval. In response to these deals, investors have pushed up Interneuron's shares 25%, to 9 5/8 from 7 3/4. Wurtman's 5% stake in the company, which he and his family share, is now worth about $10 million.
VINDICATION. Interneuron's stock is up for other reasons as well. Royalties from its first two products will finance its primary mission: developing treatments for Alzheimer's and other brain disorders such as Parkinson's disease and stroke. Between Wurtman's booty of patents and research licensed by Interneuron, the company's pipeline is full.
This is sweet vindication for Wurtman, 56, who has always been slightly outside the mainstream. As a philosophy major at the University of Pennsylvania, he became intrigued by the relationship between the body and the mind. That influenced his decision to go to Harvard Medical School, where he concentrated on brain research instead of clinical medicine. Wurtman became an associate professor at mit at age 31 and a full professor three years later. There, he maintains a torrid pace, overseeing 35 scientists in his lab, managing the school's clinical research center, which treats hundreds of patients a year, and consulting with six companies.
None of Wurtman's inventions has hit pay dirt in the U.S. But his weight-loss drug, which works by interrupting the brain transmitter associated with carbohydrate cravings, is marketed overseas by French pharmaceutical giant Les Laboratoires Servier. Called Isomeride, its sales in France alone will hit $100 million this year. Wurtman and mit split the royalties, which an mit spokeswoman said are in the "high six figures."
Wurtman's--and Interneuron's--next big break may come from an obscure drug now approved for use only in Spain. Called CDC-choline, the compound is used to enhance the memory of stroke or head-trauma victims. But a variation on the drug could be a boon for Alzheimer's patients.
In October, Wurtman and colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital reported a key discovery: They found that a deficiency of acetylcholine, a brain transmitter, may contribute to the formation of the hard, plaquelike deposits in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. Harvard University's Dennis Selkoe, a leading Alzheimer's researcher, says: "The discovery is a very important development," although it still must be confirmed. Since CDC-choline increases the acetylcholine levels in the brain, Wurtman believes it could help stem the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's.
SOMETHING FISHY. While such serious science percolates in Interneuron's labs, the company may have a tough job convincing skeptics that its first products will sell. For one thing, analysts think the diet pill may linger at the FDA because new weight-loss drugs are not a top priority of the agency, says Casdin.
The sports drink, which Veryfine plans to launch some time next year against market-leader Gatorade, will present a marketing challenge. The drink's active ingredient, choline, a natural substance not to be confused with cdc-choline, stimulates the production of a brain transmitter that helps muscles move. In one test, 10 runners who drank the concoction improved their 20-mile times by some five minutes. One unexpected side effect: The athelete who consumes 90 ounces or more of the drink a day could give off a rotting-fish smell.
Wurtman just shrugs when asked about the drink's doubters. "What can I say? It should work," he says. But even if consumers decide it doesn't, Wurtman isn't concerned about Interneuron's fate. After all, there are plenty more inventions where that one came from.