Virdante Pharmaceuticals is expanding development of its anti-inflammatory drugs with a second closing of what is now a $30 million Series A round of venture capital, the company’s CEO, John Ripple, said. The Cambridge, MA-based biotech startup has found potential ways to boost the anti-inflammatory effects of conventional antibody drugs and to create novel therapies to treat diseases in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue.
Investors have committed up to $47.75 million for the first-round financing, agreeing to add nearly $18 million to the $30 million already raised by Virdante if the company achieves certain milestones, Ripple said. Venture firm Thomas, McNerney & Partners led the second closing of the round, which included investments from new backer Osage Partners as well as previous investors Biogen Idec New Ventures, Clarus Ventures, MedImmune Ventures, and Venrock Associates. Eric Aguiar, a partner at Thomas, McNerney, is also joining the board of directors at Virdante as part of the financing, according to the company.
This large round of financing is a big boost for Virdante’s new method of adding a specific sugar molecule to antibodies to increase their ability to tamp down excess inflammation, while at the same time maintaining the immune system’s natural defense against infection. The first program under development is to increase the anti-inflammatory effects of antibody infusions used to treat diseases such as cancer, HIV, and a bevy of autoimmune diseases in which the body’s immune system goes haywire and starts attacking healthy tissue like it would a virus. These so-called intravenous immune globulin (IVIG) treatments grossed $4 billion in 2008 for drug makers such as Deerfield, IL-based Baxter Healthcare and King of Prussia, PA-based CSL Behring, Ripple said. Virdante wants to make these antibody infusions more potent to reduce how much of the treatments patients need to take and how long it can take to inject the drugs from a few days to several hours.
Virdante plans to make its IVIG with traditional supplies of the treatment derived from human blood, using an extra step in the manufacturing process that incorporates an enzyme that improves the potency of the antibodies. The demand for IVIG is bigger than many people realize. Ripple said that while the therapy is approved by the FDA for several disorders, the antibody infusions are used to treat more than 100 different diseases including non-approved uses such as treating multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s. A concern is that demand will eventually exceed supply. “One of the exciting opportunities for [our IVIG product] is that it promises to significantly reduce the therapeutic dose,” he said, “so we can use the same current supply of IVIG and treat many more patients with that same supply.”
Virdante’s technology is based on the discoveries of Jeffrey Ravetch at The Rockefeller University in New York. Ravetch found that antibodies that featured the sugar molecules called sialic acid were responsible for anti-inflammatory activity in IVIG treatments, according to Virdante. The company is working with Ravetch’s lab to further its research of these molecules and discover ways to apply them to other antibody drugs. It calls the method it uses to increase the anti-inflammatory properties of antibodies its “Sialic Switch” technology.
The second drug in Virdante’s pipeline is an antibody fragment that is linked to sialic acid, and the therapy will be developed to treat unspecified autoimmune and inflammatory disorders, according to the company. Yet it’s still early days at the company. Both of the firm’s two main development programs haven’t been tested in humans, and Ripple declined to reveal the expected timeline for advancing the company’s drugs into human clinical trials.
Virdante is currently operating in labs and offices in Kendall Square leased from Cambridge, MA-based biotech heavyweight Biogen Idec (NASDAQ:BIIB), one floor above the company’s Biogen Idec Innovation Incubator. In fact, Ripple was previously CEO of Waltham, MA-based Syntonix Pharmaceuticals, which Biogen acquired in 2007. Ripple told me that Biogen and others initially brought him in as a consultant to Virdante, which was previously called Centaurus Pharmaceuticals, and he became CEO around the time of the first closing of the Series A round in early 2008.
Ripple is no stranger to me, since he’s been declining my requests for interviews about Virdante for years. But he says that the firm has now reached a point where it is comfortable enough with the progress of its drugs to begin talking to reporters, and the firm has also discussed its science with potential partners.