Meet Norman Sussman, DURECT Medical Director
BioSpace recently spoke with Norman Sussman, Chief Medical Officer of DURECT, a company committed to transforming the treatment of acute organ damage and chronic liver disease by advancing innovative and life-saving therapies based on its endogenous epigenetic regulator program.
Q: What are your daily activities as Chief Medical Officer at DURECT?
A: I have several jobs. The first is to establish the centers for our trials, to make sure we have good quality investigators, to keep an eye on the data, and to examine any safety issues that arise. Our primary trial is a Phase IIb trial evaluating our primary epigenetic regulator drug (DUR-928) in alcohol-associated hepatitis (HA), formerly known as alcoholic hepatitis. HA is a life-threatening acute alcoholic liver disease caused by chronic excessive alcohol consumption and a recent increase in alcohol consumption, and has no approved treatment. These patients can be very sick, so they may or may not have complications from any medication they are receiving. It is very helpful for the business to have a liver doctor, especially at this stage of development.
Q: What attracted you to DURECT?
A: I was about to retire as a hepatologist, and at my last liver meeting scheduled for November 2019, I saw phase IIa data from DUR-928 in patients with HA. I’m not kidding when I tell you that I just couldn’t believe that after 50 years something could be this good. HA has been a frustrating disease the entire time that I have been practicing, and I just couldn’t believe I was seeing these results, and I thought, “This is fascinating. I need to know more. ” The results of the trial showed that 100% of treated patients survived the 28-day follow-up period, compared to a historic 28-day death rate of 26%, which is higher than some cancers. Then when Jim and WeiQi called me up and said “Hey, would you like to join the company?” I thought I was dreaming because I didn’t think I would have had the chance to help in this way. The DURECT drug is the kind of approach we need to solve this huge problem. HA affects both the elderly and the young, people with young families. It is a terrible disease and if we can find a cure it will be a huge contribution. This is the reason why I am here.
Q: What intrigues you about liver disease?
A: I trained in South Africa, and the condition was then to do a medical and surgical specialty, six months each, before being able to obtain a license. I was licensed in South Africa and really wanted to expand what I was doing. I had the choice of going to London or the United States. The United States offered such a wide range of opportunities. I actually worked for a while in London. Then, I found myself at Saint Louis University where I was resident and then chief resident. One of my duties as Chief Resident was to do a weekly conference called M&M – Morbidity and Mortality Conference. It was my job to find someone to discuss a difficult case. For the last of the year, my mentor said, “This will be your case to present.” He gave me a case of acute liver failure. I found it so fascinating that I have been interested in it ever since. I participated in the acute liver failure study group. I posted on it. We have developed the artificial liver to specifically treat this condition. It has really been a long-standing interest. In addition, it is important to have the opportunity to help patients, especially as younger and younger people are living with alcohol-related hepatitis.
Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask for?
The frequency of alcohol consumption and the amount of alcohol consumed have increased during the COVID pandemic. However, even before the pandemic, we were seeing increasing numbers of people entering hospital with AH. With the current standard of care, about a third of these patients could die of liver failure within the first three months. New treatments are needed to treat acute liver disease such as HA. Acute liver failure occurs when your liver loses function or suddenly stops, and once it reaches a certain level of damage, it cannot recover. If the liver begins to regenerate before you reach this point, the health of the liver and the patient may improve. Achieving this goal has been an interest of mine for most of my working life, and DUR-928 has the potential to help, given its mechanism of action as an epigenetic regulator, which we recently published. Our ongoing Phase IIb trial is evaluating DUR-928 in a severe form of HA that will involve 300 patients with two different doses of DUR-928 and a control, and it will be tested at multiple sites in the United States.
Please click here for more information about our contributing author, Gina Hagler.