It wasn’t long ago that the antibiotics landscape was barren of startups with fresh ideas. But government initiatives like the Generating Antibiotics Initiatives Now (GAIN) Act—and, of course, the increasing need to combat drug-resistant bugs—are slowly starting to change things. The latest example: Macrolide Pharmaceuticals, which was officially launched this morning with the backing of three large pharmaceutical firms.
Newton, MA-based Macrolide has raised a $22 million Series A round from the venture arms of GlaxoSmithKline (SR One), Novartis (Novartis Venture Fund) and Roche (Roche Ventures), and VC firm Gurnet Point Capital. The startup was co-founded by Lawrence Miller and Harvard University chemist Andrew Myers, who have teamed up in the past to create another antibiotics company, Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: TTPH). Tetraphase is now worth more than $1 billion and has a product in late-stage testing.
As its name suggests, Macrolide is focused on macrolides, a class of antibiotics that has been widely used for decades to treat pneumonia and other bacterial infections. The first macrolide, erythromycin, was discovered in 1948, but only a handful them have made it to market. The most recent was azithromycin in 1988, and their effectiveness has been impacted by bacteria’s frustrating ability to evolve and become immune to drugs. Their use for respiratory tract infections, for instance, has led to pneumococcus resistance, according to the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy.
According to Macrolide (the startup), macrolides are also difficult to synthesize. The company claims it has found a solution and can potentially expand the therapeutic range of these antibiotics to include not just gram-positive infections, but also gram-negative ones—where drug effectiveness is much more limited. It has an exclusive license to technology from Myers’s Harvard lab to engineer synthetic macrolides from scratch. The company says this the “first practical total synthesis” process used for the macrolide class of antibiotics, enabling the company to engineer “virtually any” macrolide.
Macrolide says it has already engineered over 200 novel compounds, and several have shown promise against gram-negative bugs in preclinical testing. It’ll use the Series A cash to develop these antibiotics.
The news comes at a time when there are at least inklings of change in antibiotics R&D. A historical lack of pricing power (compared to other life-saving drugs) and clarity around regulations stifled research, leading pharma companies to put much of their dollars elsewhere. While the pricing problem still hangs over the field, the GAIN Act, passed by U.S. Congress in 2012, has helped by adding incentives such as an additional five years of market exclusivity and shorter timelines to approval.
Drug-resistant bacterial infections are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 million Americans each year suffer from drug-resistant bacterial infections, and more than 23,000 of them die. Those kinds of numbers have spurred more R&D efforts among pharmas; Roche has been particularly active, cutting deals the past few years with several companies such as the recent Massachusetts startup Spero Therapeutics.
“Andy Myers and I are excited to apply this new technology to a highly effective and safe class of antibiotics, the macrolides, where we already have encouraging data in gram-positive and gram-negative species,” Miller said in a statement. “We believe that we can use this technology platform to develop multiple antibiotic products. We’re delighted to work with a superb group of sophisticated, highly experienced investors in this endeavor.”
In addition to Miller and Myers, Macrolide’s board includes Fereydon Firouz (Gurnet Point), Vikas Goyal (SR One), Monique Schiersing (Roche Ventures), and Henry Skinner (Novartis Venture Fund).
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