Dr. Neil Solomons is Chief Medical Officer and Co-Founder of Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, a clinical stage biopharmaceutical company focused on developing and commercializing therapies in disease areas of high unmet medical need. Neil was awarded his Medical Degree from the University of London’s Guys Hospital Medical School. Afterwards, he worked as a physician in London and completed specialist training in anesthesia and intensive care. Neil held positions at Roche Pharmaceuticals, Aspreva Pharmaceuticals, and Vifor Pharma before co-founding Aurinia. In our interview Neil will tell us more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:08)
Neil is an obsessive soccer fan, and he has avidly watched English Premier League games since he was a child. He also enjoys playing the guitar and spending time with his family.
The Scientific Side (3:05)
Through Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, Neil is developing a drug to treat a rare autoimmune disease called lupus nephritis. In lupus nephritis, there is inflammation of the kidneys that can result in kidney failure, need for dialysis, or kidney transplant. Currently, there are no FDA-approved therapies for this disease, but the team at Aurinia is excited to be in the final stages of developing a drug called Voclosporin to treat lupus nephritis.
A Dose of Motivation (4:55)
“Good health is an unnatural state to be in.”
What Got You Hooked on Science? (6:21)
One of the very first patients that Neil worked with when he first started as an intern was diagnosed with lupus nephritis and died as a result of this disease. After finishing his medical training, Neil began working as a doctor in a hospital. He spent a number of years working in the operating room as an anesthesiologist before transitioning into a research position at a large pharmaceutical company developing drugs to help patients with kidney transplants. It was really appealing to be able to go from treating individual patients to being able to have an impact on larger groups of patients. Neil and his team discovered that the drugs they were using for applications in organ transplants were also useful for treating autoimmune diseases like lupus. Neil next founded Aurinia to develop new drugs for these kinds of rare diseases in which patients don’t have many options for treatments.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (11:04)
For Neil, you only fail if you don’t learn something from your mistakes. Voclosporin, the current drug they are working on for lupus, was originally considered a failure as a therapy for other diseases. It didn’t work as a treatment for an inflammatory eye disease called uveitis. However, these findings gave them the resolve to better understand how the drug works and continue searching for an appropriate application. Their perseverance paid off since Voclosporin has thus far shown promising results for treating lupus nephritis.
A Shining Success! (13:00)
Neil was excited to celebrate the success of some of his clever colleagues who formulated Voclosporin from tablets into eye drops. They spent a few years conducting research to understand the best potential applications for these eye drops, and they recently completed a small study in dry eye disease. People with dry eye disease experience dryness and irritation of the outer layer of their eyes, as well as uncomfortable stinging and burning sensations. It is believed that inflammation and the immune system may contribute to dry eye symptoms. While there is an FDA-approved treatment that works to treat dry eye disease, it can take weeks or months for the drug to have an effect. In their study of about 100 people with severe dry eye disease, participants saw improvements in scarring of the eye and production of tears in just two weeks. These results were better than Neil expected, and they are looking forward to planning a larger and longer study with the Voclosporin eye drops to hopefully provide a faster-acting therapy for patients with dry eye disease.
Book Recommendations (16:10)
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Most Treasured Travel (17:12)
Through his work, Neil has had the opportunity to travel all over the world, including to Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Guatemala, Ecuador, Brasil, Russia, and Eastern Europe. One of his most memorable tips was to visit lupus research sites in Dakar and Bangladesh. They arranged a lunchtime meeting with the department of doctors who specialized in kidney conditions, and Neil was set to do a presentation there. Typically these sort of events attract 10-15 hungry doctors who listen to the talk, eat, and then return back to work. However, this time, about 400 doctors attended, they stayed for the full presentation, and Neil continued answering questions for 4-5 hours after the end of his presentation. He was completely in awe of their interest and motivation. On this trip, Neil also had an opportunity to spend time talking to the doctors and visiting different clinic sites. It was inspiring to see that many of these doctors were doing so much despite working in difficult conditions and under-resourced clinics.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (20:05)
When Neil was working as an intern in pediatrics, they had a rotation for who was on call on different days. He had the good fortune of being on call on Christmas day which meant he had to dress up as Santa Claus and hand out presents to the children in the ward. After handing out all the gifts, Neil planned to return to his clinical duties, including performing blood tests on some of the patients. He’ll never forget when one little girl saw him preparing the supplies and asked her mom why Father Christmas had a needle and a syringe.
Advice For Us All (23:10)
Know when to give up, but don’t do it too soon. Also, remember that science and drug development require a lot of hardworking people. It is more than just scientists who contribute to important science. Without all of the support staff, funders, and many others, the great discoveries happening today would not be possible.
Neil is an expert in managing, developing, guiding, and coordinating clinical development groups and activities. He is an experienced pharmaceutical physician with 18 years of clinical development and medical affairs experience in both big pharma and biotech. As a leader, he led the CellCept Clinical Development teams of over 50 people that saw the completion, reporting and publication of studies in pemphigus vulgaris, myasthenia gravis, both industry firsts and the successful landmark lupus nephritis study called the Aspreva Lupus Management Study (ALMS). Throughout his career, he has led clinical trial teams through the development and implementation stages of the program. Neil has significant experience in R&D strategy, portfolio management, and due diligence efforts. He is a recognized expert in rare-disease drug development and is widely published in this field. Neil enjoys spending time with his children as well as watching and playing soccer.