Eleven Biotherapeutics Dials Up New CEO, Primes Lead Eye Drug for Clinic Next Year

Xconomy Boston — 

There’s a running joke at Cambridge, MA-based Eleven Biotherapeutics. It shouldn’t be a surprise, since the company draws inspiration for its name from the 1984 rock mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap” in which one of the dim-witted members of the band cranks up the amplifier to 11, because that’s louder than 10.

At Eleven Biotherapeutics they aren’t trying to be dumb like the actors in the movie, but in true life-imitates-art fashion, they half started cracking wise about how every hire needs to be an “11” and every new drug candidate needs to be an “11.” So now that Eleven has hired a new CEO and started talking publicly for the first time about its lead drug candidate, you can guess how they are rated internally.

I had one burning question for Eleven’s new CEO, Abbie Celniker, as she was getting started. Was she a fan of “This is Spinal Tap” before she interviewed for the job?

“I definitely was, it’s one of the criteria for getting hired,” she joked. “If you haven’t seen all of the Christopher Guest movies, I’m not sure you can get into this company.”

Kidding aside, a lot has happened at Eleven since I wrote about its big $35 million Series A financing in February 2010. The company, founded by Third Rock Ventures and Flagship Ventures, was led in its early days by Third Rock’s Mark Levin as CEO and fellow partner Cary Pfeffer, as chief business officer. Now that some of the early work is done, Levin and Pfeffer are handing over day-to-day leadership to Celniker and Chen Schor, a former vice president of business development at Israel-based Teva Pharmaceutical, who will be Eleven’s new chief business officer. Levin and Pfeffer will stay on the board.

Celniker is a well-known biotech veteran, with a track record in various leadership roles in R&D and business operations at Novartis, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Wyeth, and Genentech. Most recently, she was the CEO of Cambridge, MA-based Taligen Therapeutics, which was acquired in January for $111 million by Cheshire, CT-based Alexion Pharmaceuticals.

The new challenge at Eleven will be to incorporate a number of technologies for designing various types of protein drugs that can have the precisely intended effect on a given biological target, Celniker says. There’s no single technology platform, but rather a variety of tools that Eleven uses to modify proteins to make them more soluble in the bloodstream, last longer, or get absorbed in an ideal way, Celniker says. The technology should make it possible to swap out certain regions of a protein drug’s structure that might be a liability. And by gathering more information about the biological target and how a given protein drug interacts with it, Eleven is hoping to boost its odds of success in clinical trials.

“We look at the entire molecule, understand what’s responsible for its function, and optimize it,” Celniker says. “Getting the structure/target relationship right, seeing how the molecule interacts with the target is important. That’s the key to knowing which part of the toolkit to use.”

Eleven has apparently been moving fast in the early going, because Celniker says she expects the company to enter its first clinical trial by the second half of 2012. The protein drug candidate is being developed as a treatment for dry eye and other topical inflammatory conditions like allergies or pink eye (conjunctivitis.) Celniker isn’t saying what target Eleven is aiming this drug at, but another compound has proven it’s a valid target, which mitigates the risk to Eleven, she says. The protein can be easily formulated into an eye drop; going after eye conditions means Eleven can follow a reasonably fast clinical development plan; and it’s an area of expertise of one of the scientific founders, Reza Dana of the Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary. Since another compound has already been in the clinic, Eleven has a good idea of the dosing and dosing schedule that its drug will need to succeed, Celniker says.

“We don’t have to do so much trial and error,” she says. “We think we can rapidly move into pivotal trials.”

Eleven will consider signing up a partner to help with its lead drug, and it is working to build up a pipeline of other drug candidates, Celniker says. So the goal here is to not be a one-hit wonder, and to have some staying power in the pharma business.

“We know how important proteins are to the portfolios of Big Pharma and Big Biotech,” Celniker says. “People put a stake in the ground to increase their portfolios in biologics several years ago. Eleven is really a company that is bringing an innovative approach.”

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