Ian Huen is the Founder, CEO and Managing Director of Aptorum Group (NASDAQ:APM), a Hong Kong based pharmaceutical company currently in the preclinical stage, dedicated to developing and commercializing a broad portfolio of projects under development of therapeutic and diagnostic technologies to tackle unmet medical needs.
What’s your journey in becoming a CEO?
I graduated from Princeton University with an A.B. degree in Economics in June 2001, subsequently completed a postgraduate MA program in Comparative and Public History from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in June 2016. I also attained Chartered Financial Analyst (“CFA”) designation during my time at formerly Janus Capital (currently renamed to Janus Henderson Group plc) as an equity research analyst covering the U.S. healthcare sector. Following which, I was a global asset manager for over 15 years for our proprietary family office funds and others. During that time, I was also the sell-side financial advisor in the sale of Seng Heng Bank Limited (Macau) to Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in 2007. After that, I founded Aptorum Group, a biopharmaceutical company focused on unmet medical needs, in 2016 and became its Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director with initial seeding capital c. USD$25m.
Tell us a bit about your business and how you are commercializing?
Aptorum Group Limited (Nasdaq: APM) is a biopharmaceutical company dedicated to tackle unmet medical needs. Our pipeline currently focuses on indications including orphan diseases, infectious diseases and metabolic diseases, a number of which are targeted to enter various phases of clinical trials in 2020. Our company also operates a woman’s health supplement business whose Chinese Yam Nutraceutical Tablets is currently being manufactured in Canada and targeted for commercialization this Q2/3 2020.
The first of our three major pillars of drug discovery and development is the Smart-ACTTM platform. Under the platform, we target to systematically identify and repurpose existing approved drugs for selected orphan disease, thus significantly cutting short development timeline and resources of bringing the molecule into late-stage clinical trials. In our case, we target to bring a new repurposed drug to phase 1b/2a trials on average between 12-18 months per program from initial screening. As a first proof-of-concept, the Smart-ACTTM platform has successfully screened over 1,615 approved drugs against 3 therapeutic target proteins related to poor prognosis of neuroblastoma (“NB”) and selected one candidate for further development with an aim to entering clinical trials. This lead program, SACT-1, for the treatment of neuroblastoma, is targeted for an IND submission via the US FDA 505(b)(2) pathway in second half of 2020 to enter proof of concept human trials in North America.
Our second major pillar is the Acticule platform, targeting infectious diseases which is a hot area right now. One of our leading programs is ALS-4 targeting infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus using an anti-virulence (non-bactericidal) approach. ALS-4 is a small molecule anti-virulence non-bactericidal drug for the treatment of infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus including Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), one of the “superbugs” estimated to cause at least 150,000 infections in the US along with between 30-55% mortality rate. ALS-4 drug is a first-in-class oral drug which disarms the bacteria by inhibiting the production of Staphyloxanthin, the golden pigment covering the bacteria, which make it resistant to attack from reactive oxygen species (ROS) employed by our phagocytic cells and neutrophils as an immune defense. By inhibiting the pigment production, our data clearly indicated the remarkable efficacy of ALS-4 against Staphylococcus aureus including MRSA. ALS-4 is currently undergoing IND enabling studies and is targeted for IND submission in second half of 2020 to commence phase 1 trials in North America.
Our third major pillar is the Claves platform which targets metabolic diseases. The lead program under Claves platform, CLS-1, is a macromolecule that modulates the chemical signaling of gut microbiota for the treatment of obesity. CLS-1 is an orally administered non-absorbable macromolecule that binds a specific metabolite related to obesity excreted by gut microbiota with high affinity and specificity. In a preclinical study employing an animal model, we successfully demonstrated that CLS-1 significantly reduced body weight without any major side-effects such as liver toxicity. CLS-1 is currently in preclinical development, targeted for IND submission in 2021.
We also have a dietary supplement, NLS-2, targeted for the relief of women undergoing menopause or post-menopausal cycles and experiencing related symptoms such as flushes and even osteoporosis. The supplement is made from Chinese yam containing an active bioactive ingredient called “DOI”, which is Aptorum Group’s non-hormonal approach intended to meet certain growing $17 billion per year global women’s health consumer nutritional market. We have entered into a regional distribution agreement with Multipak Limited, a local company holding the famous tea brand “Luk Yu” and other health products. The supplement will initially be sold in Hong Kong and we are seeking regulatory clearance to market the product in other major jurisdictions. At this stage, the production of Aptorum Group’s NLS-2 DOI based bioactive nutraceutical tablets has commenced in Canada and will be marketed under the brand name NativusWellTM. The product is expected to be revenue generating in 2020.
How are you managing with the current COVID-19 pandemic on both business and personal front?
The SARS-COV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease is highly infectious and requires a multi-dimensional approach from the worldwide communities to bring this under control. Aptorum Group has made announcements at the end of March on our SACT-COV19 program, where we have identified, under our Smart-ACT platform, at least 3 FDA approved small molecule drugs that we will investigate further for repurposing against the COVID-19 virus. We are partnering with Toronto based pharma development company Covar Pharmaceuticals and also contracted University of Hong Kong’s Microbiology team to conduct further preclinical investigations. The merit about drug repurposing is that these are usually previously approved and marketed drugs that have already undergone rigorous clinical trials, therefore these candidates can potentially benefit from a shortened development timeline to reach proof-of-concept clinical trials (usually bypassing or conducting abbreviated preclinical and phase 1 studies subject to regulatory approvals). We hope to report back our progress in this Q2 prior to seeking regulatory approval to initiate clinical trials on our selected candidates.
Based on the current situation, we expect this disease may not be fully eradicated and may well continue for the medium term. Although the current SARS-COV-2 virus (current mortality rate 4.1%) has a lower mortality rate than that of the 2003 SARS-COV-1 virus strain (mortality rate 9.6%) or the 2012 MERS-COV virus strain (mortality rate 37%), the current SARS-COV-2 virus has a more resilient survival period and higher infection rate. Our strategy is to tackle this disease from a therapeutic standpoint and we will continue to investigate and develop our SACT-COV19 drug candidates under our Smart-ACTTM platform for the treatment of COVID-19, and hope to work with our collaborators to speedily deliver a workable therapeutic solution to the world.
On the personal front, I strongly recommend abiding by government guidelines in maintaining personal hygiene as well as the practice of social distancing until such time the government considers it safe to do otherwise.
What’s the most exciting thing about running your business?
The pharmaceutical industry is undergoing expansion, driven by the unmet medical needs in various diseases areas. For Aptorum Group, it is exciting to catalyze the development and improvement of a broad portfolio of projects under development from preclinical to clinical stages of novel therapeutics and diagnostics across a wide range of disease/therapeutic areas, specifically orphan disease area. I particularly enjoy the process of successfully transforming clinical outcomes to create value, sustainable business growth and the most important thing, saving patients.
How do you measure success?
The definition of success is different for everyone, and my definition of success is to achieve success for different stakeholders of the Aptorum Group. For investors, success can be the value creation of the enterprise. For employees, success can be the positive development of an individual’s career path or the award from the job. For Aptorum Group’s business, I like to see through the successful development of our drugs to tackle unmet medical needs and save more lives.
What do you think is the most important quality of being a CEO of a listed company?
First, the CEO needs to have the farsightedness so that he can foresee the strategic steps required for the company in the long term. Second, as the business market evolves rapidly due to external factors, so the company needs to be nimble and flexible enough in adapting to such changes in the market. Finally, perseverance is also crucial and critical in driving the success of pharmaceutical companies, drug research and development may not always be smooth, as CEO, must have confidence and embrace the changes.
What is your favourite book?
My favourite book is “Qi Wu Lun” written by Chuang Tzu. The text formulates that the universe is of one entity and humans are part of that structure. As with our ALS-4 program, a natural approach are used to disarm the bacteria by inhibition of the production of staphyloxanthin aureus including MRSA, the golden pigment covering bacteria, which allow our immune system to eliminate the bacteria on its own without using antibiotic.
What message do you want to send to our readership in Asia?
This year 2020 is proving to be an exciting year for Aptorum Group which will transform into a full-fledged clinical stage biopharmaceutical company driven by our three major platforms. Despite the challenges arising due to the COVID-19, our development progress and recent expansion of pipeline continue to operate on a business-as-usual basis. With the recent capital raise completed and supported by our US institutional fund shareholders, our fundamentals remain strong and we will continue to target to deliver those key catalysts and drive shareholder value as we have planned and communicated to our investors so far.
How can people connect with you?
Aptorum Group Website: https://www.aptorumgroup.com/