Taligen CEO Aims to Develop Drugs For Inflammatory Diseases, Build Company in Cambridge

Abbie Celniker has been climbing biotech’s corporate ladder for much of her career. Higher and higher she went, in senior R&D jobs at Genentech, Wyeth Biopharma, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, and most recently as global head of Novartis Biologics in Cambridge, MA. Now, at 49, she has taken a detour to become CEO of a growing startup company in Cambridge called Taligen Therapeutics.

At big companies, the higher Celniker climbed, the further she got from her roots as a molecular biologist. “At a large pharma company, you’re managing or directing things at such a high level, you couldn’t really see things at a level where you’re exposed to the science anymore,” Celniker says. “I fell in love with the science they have here.”

Taligen, she explained to me recently, is developing drugs for inflammatory diseases that work in a new way, by controlling the “alternative pathway of complement”—a part of the immune system that helps initiate and amplify inflammation. The approach is different than that of other protein drugs that work further “downstream” in the chain of inflammatory events, like Amgen’s arthritis drug Enbrel or Biogen Idec and Elan’s multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease treatment, Tysabri, she says. Intervening earlier in the complicated cascade of events, the reasoning goes, could better control inflammation.

Whenever a drug sets out to tamp down an excessive immune reaction, though, researchers have to worry about going too far, and making the body vulnerable to infection. (Tysabri, for example, has been linked to a potentially fatal brain infection called PML.) Taligen’s drugs may have an advantage here, because they can be designed to work locally just at the organ or tissue affected by an inflammatory disease, rather than acting throughout the entire body. A drug for asthma, say, could be inhaled into the lungs, or a treatment for macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly, could be injected behind the eye, Celniker says.

Founded in 2004 by Woodruff Emlen and Michael Holers, professors at the University of Colorado, and working with a group of just seven people in discovery research, Taligen has built a suite of protein-based drug candidates that modify the amplification role of the alternative complement pathway. The work is still in early stages, and hasn’t yet progressed to clinical trials, yet it has attracted big money. Taligen announced in February that it had secured a $65 million Series B round of venture capital, divvied into undisclosed chunks based on hitting milestones in development. The first chunk arrived in January, led by Alta Partners and Clarus Ventures, and included existing investors Sanderlin Ventures, Tango and High Country Venture.

The cash is being used to double the size of the company, Celniker says. Taligen moved its corporate headquarters from Aurora, CO, to Cambridge last month when Celniker joined. While its discovery group will stay in Colorado, the company is looking for people in Cambridge with experience in animal testing, manufacturing for clinical trials, and early-stage development work, who are hard to find in Colorado, Celniker says. “It’s hard to build a company to make protein drugs if you’re not in the Bay Area or here,” she says. “We need people who have done it before.”

Celniker makes it sound like it won’t be too hard to find recruits. “Literally you can’t walk down the street without bumping into someone you want to consult with or hire,” she says. And at a company of Taligen’s size, Celniker will surely get to see those people, and the science they’re working on, at close range.

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