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Thorne Research lands investment from Helsinn Group

The practitioner supplement company and the European pharmaceutical firm are teaming up to launch a line of natural products focused on the cancer supportive care market. Although the opportunity seems ripe, marketing challenges could abound for such a venture.

Thorne Research Inc., a 25-year-old practitioner supplement company specializing in hypoallergenic products, announced May 11 that it is receiving a minority investment from the Helsinn Group, a pharmaceutical company based in Lugano, Switzerland. The undisclosed investment will be used to develop a line of supplement products specifically formulated to meet the structure/function needs of cancer patients. Eventually the two companies plan to create a stand-alone joint venture focused on providing products for the cancer support market, as well as on educating oncologists and patients about the nutritional, exercise and lifestyle needs of people living with cancer.

“People can live with cancer for many years, and our focus is on providing the best integrative products that will enable those people to live longer, better and more normal lives,” Helsinn Group CEO Riccardo Braglia told

Helsinn already sells a variety of pharmaceutical products targeted to the cancer support market. These include Aloxi, an injection that eases chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting; and Gelclair, a gel that helps decrease the pain of lesions caused by chemotherapy and helps prevent further breakouts. Hoping to expand into the natural products market, Helsinn consulted with leading U.S. oncologists, who confirmed the need for high-quality nutrition-based products formulated for people living with cancer, Braglia said. “Cancer patients have specific food supplement needs, but they also often have doubts about the quality of supplement products and about the proper dosages that are best for them,” he added.

Helsinn chose Thorne Research as its partner for creating these products because of the supplement company’s reputation for manufacturing quality. “I have seen other food supplement manufacturing plants, and nothing compares to Thorne’s facility in Idaho,” Braglia said.

Thorne Research CEO Paul Jacobson said Helsinn’s clinical research expertise and appreciation of dietary supplements make the European pharmaceutical company an ideal partner. “[Helsinn] has a very positive view of natural products,” Jacobson said. “They will play a very large role in selecting the products we take to market.”

Although specific products have yet to be announced, Jacobson said a pipeline of 10 to 15 supplement offerings is in the works. These could include supplements for nausea relief and skin care, which are both needed by people undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and other cancer therapies. The products will be sold exclusively through licensed healthcare practitioners, including oncologists. They will carry a separate brand that has not yet been unveiled, Jacobson said.

Providing nutritional and other health and wellness information to practitioners and their patients is a key focus of the Thorne-Helsinn Partnership, Jacobson added. Thorne will use its recently announced Health Elements website to facilitate practitioner outreach and education. “The primary goal is to provide education on specific products and become the go-to-place for physicians to find information about natural products,” Jacobson said.

Claims limitations for supplements

As both Braglia and Jacobson explained, the oncology market is ripe for high-quality nutrition products that can help support quality of life for cancer patients. The challenge, of course, is that under the rules set out by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), supplement manufacturers cannot make any disease-related claims for their products, including any claims related to treating, preventing or mitigating cancer.

Under DSHEA, even those supplement companies making claims related to the adverse health effects (such as nausea) connected with pharmaceutical disease treatments (such as chemotherapy) must be very careful in how they proceed with their labeling and marketing, said regulatory attorney Ivan Wasserman, a partner at Mannatt Phelps and Phillips. “Supplement companies face a lot of barriers in the claims they can make.”

According to Jacobson, following the letter of the law will be of the upmost importance to Thorne Research and Helsinn. “We will not make health claims that we can’t make,” he explained. “We are not looking to put cancer cures on the market.”

Another new leaf for Thorne

Thorne Research has undergone some significant changes since last June, when the supplement manufacturer came under new ownership and management led by Jacobson.

Last month, Thorne announced a new joint venture with Integrative Health Resources to create Health Elements, a web portal offering a broad range of medical information, products and practice support services for healthcare practitioners.

A former Goldman Sachs executive, Jacobson said Thorne Research was an attractive investment because of its reputation in the practitioner supplement market. “We want to be a leader in the practitioner channel,” he said. Jacobson and his team also appreciated the focus Thorne Founder Al Czap had long placed on manufacturing quality through its facility in Idaho, which has achieved pharmaceutical-level manufacturing certification from Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

Along with building out the Helsinn and Health Elements joint ventures, Jacobson and his management team plan to expand and further upgrade Thorne’s Idaho manufacturing facility, grow the company’s direct-to-practitioner sales force, and engage in clinical trials for its finished products.

“In general, more money has been spent on marketing than on science in the dietary supplement industry,” Jacobson said. “We want to help change that.”

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