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Pulmatrix Pulls in $5.7M DARPA Grant to Develop Drug Against Respiratory Threats

Xconomy Boston — 

Pulmatrix might have just the defense for soldiers against respiratory invaders. Now the Lexington, MA-based biotech firm has won a $5.7 million grant to advance its technology that originated at MIT and Harvard for defense purposes.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of the U.S. Department of Defense, awarded the firm the grant to fund research for two years that is intended to lead to an inhaled dry-powder therapy, according to the company. The idea is to provide a soldier with one inhaled therapy that could treat and prevent multiple lung infections, including those brought on by natural pathogens or acts of biological warfare. The treatment could also be given to civilians, according to the company.

CEO Robert Connelly explained that this grant complements the work his firm is already doing to develop inhaled dry-powder therapies for reducing the effects of respiratory ailments such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Yet this defense award calls for the firm’s therapy to be delivered with a small inhaler that a soldier would carry during a mission. First, though, the company needs to develop the powder formula for the inhaler, then develop the inhaler itself.

“If you put yourself in the shoes of a soldier who is [at war] somewhere around the world, it’s not known what weapon or what viruses that are specific to that locale are in the air,” Connelly said. “So off the bat what you get with our technology is a take-on-all-comers approach” to combating multiple inhaled pathogens.

Defense agencies have known of the startup for years. Founded in 2003 with technology from the labs of Bob Langer at MIT and David Edwards at Harvard University, the firm received some of its early support through $1.8 million in defense- and homeland security-related funding from the U.S. government’s Technical Support Working Group, according to Connelly.

The DARPA grant will support work of the company’s core technology that has already helped the firm raise $45 million in equity investments from 5AM Ventures, Arch Venture Partners, Novartis Bioventures Fund, and Polaris Venture Partners. Part of the excitement about the technology, which could be developed to combat multiple bugs with one treatment, is its key differences from the standard approach of developing individual drugs against one specific infection.

The firm’s particles are designed to enhance the barrier at the fluid lining of lungs. Its properties are intended to both make it difficult for pathogens to infiltrate the lungs and to increase hydration and movement of protective hairs lining the lungs to remove pathogens. Also, the firm’s technology activates a molecular pathway that leads to the secretion of antimicrobial peptides to take out foreign invaders in the lungs, according to the company.

While Pulmatrix has been support by grants and venture capital so far, Connelly said, the firm expects to land corporate deals in the future to provide funding. And the firm has recently named Eva Jack, a former managing director of MedImmune Ventures, to be the biotech’s chief business officer to focus on making deals with corporate partners.

Pulmatrix has a big year planned for 2011. The firm is now in an early-stage clinical trial with its treatment for asthmatics, a study that is expected to yield data in the first half of next year. And plans are to start a Phase I clinical trial for a treatment for patients with COPD early next year. The firm plans to develop the same dry-powder drug candidate as it’s using in the COPD patients for people with asthma, the flu, and cystic fibrosis, according to its website.

Importantly, next year will be the first time the company will have data on the effectiveness of its drugs in humans, Connelly says. Depending on how well its clinical trials and talks with corporate partners go, the company could have some exciting news to share next year.