Taking on an IPO: How Lantern Pharma got it done amid COVID-19 — and the opportunities ahead

by Brian Womack – Staff Writer, Dallas Business Journal
Aug 13, 2020, 10:22 am EDT

Panna Sharma, Chief Executive Officer, President and Director of Lantern Pharma

Tackling on an initial public offering isn’t exactly an easy process. For Dallas’ Lantern Pharma, it came amid COVID-19.

“We had a very interesting and tough decision to make,” CEO Panna Sharma said in an interview. “Do we stay private and do a smaller private round? Do we do we have confidence that we’ll be able to do a public offering in this pandemic?”

In March, the markets were falling – and the IPO market went quiet.

“What is going on here? Are we going to be dead in the water?” were among the questions the executive had.

The decision was made to go ahead with the idea for the biotech firm as the environment improved. Yet Sharma was careful. He worked on lining some financing, and went to work on getting the IPO process finalized.

Lantern Pharma would begin trading during June as interest rose in the industry on Wall Street. And Sharma is looking ahead – optimistic about the potential as treatments continue to show promise.

It’s not a big, traditional firm. Lantern Pharma is a clinical stage biotechnology company that had no revenue last year.

It’s focused on leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning and genomic data to streamline the drug development process and to identify the patients that will benefit from targeted therapies. It’s helping in the battle against cancer and has a handful of treatments it’s working on, including what’s called LP-300, LP 100 and LP-184, for different areas. Sharma recently discussed the company and what’s ahead:

Can you talk more about the decision to pull the trigger on doing the IPO?
The biotech markets … looked kind of robust. Biotech was kind of the first to rebound back because of the need for biotech and innovation in healthcare. So although a lot of other sectors were still closed off in the public markets, it seemed that biotech was still in demand. It’s been a very, very busy time for biotech companies.

How did the process actually happen?
Our entire road show was virtual. We had a management team that was in Texas and Georgia, Maryland — bankers in New York and West Coast and investors all over the globe. Everything was done through phone calls or video calls.

How did the COVID-19 environment affect a biotech company that isn’t addressing those pandemic issues directly?
People were very interested in innovation. I think the COVID-19 backdrop made people realize that we need to continue investing in innovative new ways to combat disease. With regards to COVID-19, we would not be this far along in vaccine development f it weren’t for you know computational virology. So the fact that people are sharing data globally and using more machine power to understand and design features of drugs and look at data sets — I think made a lot of investors excited about companies like ours that are able to use data and use computation to either de-risk or make the process more efficient. Even though we weren’t directly related to COVID-19, I think COVID-19 brought the cover off a lot of the advances that were beginning to go in drug development.

What’s the sales picture look like for you in the future?
Typically the way a biotech like ours works is we would probably sell off the drug to another bigger biotech or pharma company. Basically, we (are) in many ways for now being more of like a provider of innovative new medicines to the pharma community. And so we plan on developing partnerships where we sell off our assets or partner out our assets for tens of millions or hundreds of millions or more.

What will the money you raised I the IPO be used for?
The majority of it will be used to support the advancement of our two clinical stage assets, LP-300 and LP-184. So putting them into trials.

And for the uninitiated, why are those trials important?
Clinical trials are where we’re proving that the drug is effective, and has a meaningful change in the outcome for that patient, in terms of survival odds or reducing the cancer or removing the cancer. So, these are typically controlled, scientific studies inside of humans, inside of a controlled environment under protocol registered with the FDA. This is what really makes or breaks biotechs.

Why are you excited about the potential for your efforts?
The LP-300. There is a big need in lung cancer among never smokers. There is no clinical option that is targeting this population of never-smoking patients. And never-smoking patients are about two-thirds female – and have really poor outcomes. They tend to be younger. And they don’t respond well to a lot of existing lung cancer therapies because they’ve been more like more focused on tobacco- based mutations and targets. From my standpoint, it’s really been a community that has been underserved. I think we have a drug that represents a tremendous potential to change the outcome for those patients. And this drug has a history of being very safe and effective in prior historical trials.

There’s one that’s already in trial now as well – and that’s our first one, LP-100.

Can you walk me through that effort with prostate cancer?
Once a prostate cancer goes metastatic (spreads beyond point of origin) … there’s a certain type of prostate cancer that also doesn’t respond to hormone therapy. It’s long been thought that androgen (a form of testosterone) directly drives cancer growth. So now as we understand cancer better, people look at some prostate cancers that are independent of androgen — and some that are not.

There are some where you can get androgen deprivation therapy. Prostate cancer can be driven by men who have more androgen. Then as we understood more about prostate cancer, there’s also a subtype of prostate cancer — about 15 percent to 20 percent of it — that is independent of androgen. That is a very bad outcome for men. This is one of the worst forms of prostate cancer. We believe we have a drug that targets this subtype of prostate cancer that is metastatic and hormone refractory — it means continues to grow or is castration resistant. If it continues to grow, there are very few options.

We believe we have a drug that provides these men with an option to improve their outcome. And the only way we know again that we know this is by genomics, by understanding the genomics of that cancer.