The Interview Issue: Lurker, CEO of EyePoint, talks about pharma company’s vital products, what’s next — and offers pointed comparison of how Boston, Jersey serve her industry

Nancy Lurker, CEO and president, EyePoint Pharmaceuticals

Stick a needle in your eye.

It’s more than just a gruesome line in a nursey rhyme, it’s a way of life for many who are battling a growing number of eye and vision ailments.

EyePoint Pharmaceuticals in Basking Ridge is here to help. It can’t prevent such occurrences, but it can diminish the frequency. With its FDA-approved drug delivery technology called Durasert, it often can turn a monthly shot into a twice-yearly shot. Even more, Durasert improves the time-release of the drug, improving its efficacy. And, fewer shots means fewer chances for mishaps and scarring.

CEO Nancy Lurker, a pharmaceutical industry veteran who took over the company in 2016, said the technology is a huge breakthrough. 

“Why are we excited about this?” she asks, and then answers. “Because it is the theme of every event I go to: ‘We’ve got to get longer-duration drug treatments for the eye.’”

Business is booming in the industry — thanks to the aging of our population. Where it’s booming is another issue, especially in New Jersey, which is competing with Boston for companies such as EyePoint.

Lurker was happy to talk about all these issues and more in the ROI-NJ Interview Issue, our annual give-and-take with some of the top leaders in the state.

Here’s a look at our conversation with Lurker, edited for length and clarity:

ROI-NJ: Let’s start at the top. Give us your elevator speech about EyePoint Pharmaceuticals, which has an office in Basking Ridge?

Nancy Lurker: EyePoint Pharmaceuticals is an ophthalmology-focused pharmaceutical company that is dedicated to preventing blindness. And that’s a wonderful mission to have. We’re one of the leading drug delivery companies in ophthalmology and we are both an R&D-focused company with some exciting drugs in the pipeline and a commercial ophthalmology company with our own two products in the United States: Dexycu and Yutiq. So, we are a revenue-driven company, as well as continuing to invest in our own R&D pipeline and also looking at other acquisitions and licensing opportunities.

But, what I think is most exciting about our company is that we have a really impressive drug delivery technology called Durasert. What’s happened in a lot of therapeutic areas, and I would say particularly in ophthalmology, is that how you administer medication is increasingly becoming more important than what medication you’re delivering. That’s because, oftentimes, you can get more effectiveness if you deliver it differently. Our lead technology, Durasert, has been approved for use in multiple FDA-approved drugs.

Patients don’t have the time to come into a doctor’s office every month or once every two months — and who wants to get their eye injected that frequently? Plus, if you do, you start to build scar tissue up on the outside part of the eye. And every time you inject, there always is a risk of hemorrhage or the needle is poked wrong and you can end up with detachments.

So, we’re excited for the future.

ROI: Tell us about the company’s drug offerings.

Lurker’s favorite New Jerseyan

“Frank Sinatra! Who doesn’t love his music? I do, and I listen to him all the time. “

Lurker’s favorite thing about New Jersey

“I love the two sides of Jersey. There is the hip, fast -paced and congested New Jersey — Hoboken, Jersey City, for example. And then there is the bucolic, Garden State part of New Jersey — Bedminster, Far Hills, Mendham and Peapack. It’s a contrast I so enjoy.”

NL: Dexycu is the first and only FDA-approved, sustained-release steroid for the prevention of post-ocular inflammation. We are commercializing it for cataract surgery, which is the No. 1 surgery performed of all surgeries in the U.S. With Dexycu, you can give one injection right at the end of cataract surgery, just behind where the new lens is implanted. The patient is then protected, with most likely no need for cumbersome and often expensive eye drops.

Yutiq is on the market for a very serious disease called posterior uveitis, which is a blinding disease that unfortunately affects people in middle age. Yutiq is released over three years. With Yutiq, the issue is not only less frequent eye injections, but, when you deliver the drug consistently, as opposed to what we call peaks and valleys from the frequent eye injections with other therapies, you seem to get a better result.

But our most exciting asset is EYP-1901.

ROI: Tell us about that drug.

NL: It is still in development, but it’s for Wet AMD, or macular degeneration, a very serious blinding eye disease, which usually affects people as they get older. There are no cures. It is a lifelong disease requiring lifelong treatment. It is expected that the incidence of this is going to continue to grow as the baby boomers age. But, the problem with current therapies, such as Eylea and Lucentis, which have become multibillion-dollar drugs, is they require, once every month to once every two months, eye injections for the rest of your life. 

What is exciting about EYP-1901 is that it will be delivered with Durasert, so it will extend the time you need to deliver these medications. Instead of coming in every month or every two months to get your eyes injected, theoretically, should we be successful, you can come in once every six months to get your eye injected.

We will go into human clinical trials in early first quarter of 2021.

This is a potentially phenomenal advancement in the treatment of a very debilitating disease. So, we’re pretty happy about where we are as a company right now.

ROI: Let’s talk about where the company is. You’re the CEO and are based in Basking Ridge. But, the company’s corporate headquarters are in Watertown, Massachusetts. In other words, you are in both of the biggest pharma spaces on the East Coast. Talk about these locations.

NL: Here’s why we have sites in two places. The company actually was founded in Boston, but, when we got ready to launch Yutiq and Dexycu, we found it’s hard to get good commercial talent in the Boston area. And, so, we came to New Jersey because New Jersey still has some of the best commercial talent in the country.

ROI: When you say commercial talent, what does that mean?

NL: That means product managers, heads of sales, market research, market analytics — anything related to how you go out and launch your drug. You need people who know how to do this. It is very different skillset than that of the clinical R&D people, who are developing the drugs.

The Boston corridor is booming with R&D biotech. But, what happens, generally speaking, is that the companies sell out to Big Pharma before they commercialize. Big Pharma is still primarily located in New Jersey. So, if you want to launch drugs, it’s just not as easy to find the talent in the Boston area as it is in New Jersey.

ROI: We have to ask, why is it better to do your R&D in Massachusetts? Keeping pharma companies in New Jersey — especially R&D companies — is one of the state’s top priorities. Can that trend of leaving for Boston be reversed?

NL: I think it absolutely can be reversed. Here’s what needs to happen — and I think the state is making progress, but it has to continue: It’s collaborating among our disparate university hospital and research systems so that there is transparency and sharing of information.  Ultimately, what drives a lot of biomedical research is what goes on at the university level. 

So, you’ve got all these large universities up in Boston area that are all working together. You can do research, collaboratively, among the universities. That’s No. 1.

No. 2: New Jersey has to develop better university-to-business partnerships and technology transfer. It hasn’t been as robust here as it is up in Boston. I meet with researchers at the universities up there all the time. We’re constantly collaborating.

ROI: You’re making us feel sorry for pharma companies — and you know that’s unusual. Seriously, talk about the fact that, while companies such as yours are creating drugs to prevent blindness, the industry as a whole is getting a reputation as one that is bilking or overcharging for its medications.

NL: Unfortunately, as is the case in many industries, we have bad actors. I’ve spent 30 years in this. And I’ve watched a small minority of companies — I won’t name them — give the industry a black eye. We’ve got to root them out and stop it.

There have been CEOs who marked up prices mercilessly to drive profits to the company’s bottom line. I’m not going to shy away from saying there is a problem. Now, again, it’s not the majority, it’s a minority — but, unfortunately, that minority has given the industry a bad reputation. We have to fix that, first and foremost. 

Pharma, the trade industry and bio, have made a commitment to name those CEOs, embarrass them, so that this kind of behavior stops. And I challenge the board of directors of companies: You need to know how much your CEOs are raising prices on your drugs. Too many boards don’t ask that question. They need to be responsible and do that — and then hold the management team accountable if prices are going up too fast and too aggressively.

The pharma industry does too much good to get a bad reputation.

ROI: OK, equal time — speak to that?

NL: Look at COVID-19. Thank God for the pharma industry. It’s a classic case. If it wasn’t for the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, the world wouldn’t have the number of vaccines in development that we have today. We’re the leader in the world. We’ve got the best scientists and the best technology to drive this forward. 

ROI: This brings us back to EyePoint Pharmaceuticals, which is doing great things to prevent blindness in our aging population. That’s pretty cool. I’ll give you the last word: Where do you see EyePoint going forward in the next 3-5 years?

NL: Short term, it’s two things. One, we need to continue to grow our Yutiq and Dexycu products that are on the market today, and ensure patients have the ability to get these wonderful drugs and pay for them. And, because they are very innovative, I’m optimistic about the benefit they’re going to provide to patients, and that they will continue to get increased use. 

The second is, we need to move our preclinical product for Wet AMD, EYP 1901, into its first Phase I clinical trial. That’s a big milestone for us and we are on track for that to happen in the first quarter of 2021. We’ll start reporting out the results of that potentially in the late fall or winter next year. If the data are positive, I’ll be very bullish on our company.