NormOxys Emerges from Stealth with New Class of Oxygen Drugs for Cancer, Heart Failure

Everyone needs oxygen, and major health problems can pop up when certain tissues get too little or too much. Now a small biotech company based in Wellesley, MA, co-founded by a Nobel Laureate, says it has discovered a new class of drugs that delivers targeted oxygen to tissues that are starving for it, without going overboard.

The company, NormOxys, is starting to talk publicly for the first time today about what it is trying to accomplish. I heard about it yesterday from the company’s CEO, Martin Tolar. He was a professor of neurology at Yale University before taking on a series of jobs in clinical development and business development at Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), and then in executive roles at South San Francisco-based CoMentis.

The big idea at NormOxys is like the name suggests—to normalize the amount of oxygen in deprived tissues. The technology comes from a combination of biology research from Claude Nicolau, a visiting professor at Tufts University in Medford, MA, and chemistry research from Jean-Marie Lehn, a Nobel Laureate at the College de France in Paris. The company, founded in 2004, has now built up a portfolio of small-molecule compounds that it says can get tiny oxygen-carrying red blood cells to release a controlled amount of oxygen into tissues that desperately need more—such as heart muscle laboring under the stress of congestive heart failure, unable to pump enough blood to give people the energy they need.

The company doesn’t have any proof that it can do this efficiently in humans, but it is poised to enter its first clinical trials this year to see if it can do that. If this early test shows promise, it could open up a new way of treating heart failure, anemia, and even cancer, Tolar says.

“We’re not talking about a few percentage points of incremental improvement,” Tolar says. “The reason I joined the company is that it has such a profound effect.”

Martin Tolar

Martin Tolar

Those are pretty bullish words for a company that’s still not yet in the clinic. But NormOxys has some prominent people backing it up. Nicolau and Lehn have collaborated before on a pair of biotech companies, including Cambridge, MA-based Alantos, which sold to Amgen two years ago for $300 million. Former GlaxoSmithKline CEO Jean-Pierre Garnier is the chairman of the board at NormOxys, and Switzerland’s Index Ventures has participated in the company’s first two venture rounds, along with several wealthy individuals, Tolar says. About $15 million in venture capital has gone to the company so far, he says. The startup’s ability to recruit Tolar is “a testament to the innovative and exciting science we are pursuing,” Garnier says in a company statement.

The best-known example of a drug that treats oxygen deficiency is Amgen’s erythropoietin (Epogen) and darbepoeitin (Aranesp), a couple of billion-dollar molecules. They are both hormones that stimulate the body to produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, and it has been used by millions of people over the past two decades to treat anemia associated with kidney disease, or as a side effect of cancer. But the FDA has warned physicians repeatedly about studies that show an increasing risk … Next Page »

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