With Termeer Aboard, Artax Tries New Attack On Autoimmune Disease

Xconomy Boston — 

[Corrected 9/22/15, 10:15am. See below.] Call it the Termeer trickle-down effect. Former Genzyme CEO Henri Termeer has been funding and advising Boston-area startups ever since his company was snapped up for $20 billion in 2011, bringing him a nine-digit payout.

The latest startup to gain his imprimatur is Artax Biopharma, a Cambridge, MA-based startup working on what its CEO Damià Tormo says is a novel approach to fighting autoimmune disease. Artax is announcing a $10 million Series B round today, led by Termeer. Advent Life Sciences and A.M. Pappas also participated. [Artax CEO Damià Tormo’s name was previously misspelled.]

The current generation of treatments for autoimmune diseases are, relatively speaking, blunt instruments. They suppress the immune system, which helps cool off the autoimmune attack, but the suppression also weakens the body’s ability to fight threats from viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. Rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, and psoriasis are some of the most common autoimmune diseases.

Artax believes it can produce autoimmune drugs that are more precise, allowing healthy T cells—the guard dogs of the immune system—to continue to fight off invaders, but blocking abnormal T cells from wreaking havoc. The secret, says Tormo, is developing a traditional small-molecule drug that can penetrate into T cells and block the activity of a protein called Nck.

T cells respond to external chemical signals. The stronger the signal, the more likely they are to attack the source of the signal. Normally, T cells don’t respond to the chemical signals they receive from other healthy tissues in the body. But when the immune system malfunctions, T cells pick up those signals and respond. Nck acts as an amplifier for those signals, says Tormo, so blocking Nck should prevent a faulty response without hobbling the T cells that respond to strong signals from pathogens.

So far, Artax has tested its lead compound AX-024, given as a pill, in 28 volunteers and has encountered no safety problems, says Tormo. He can’t say yet which autoimmune disease Artax wants to go after first, but the company will decide soon and wants to start a Phase 2 trial next year.

The work comes from the lab of Balbino Alarcón, a Spanish researcher at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid whose work on Nck dates back more than a decade. Tormo is also Spanish. A coincidence? “Oh no,” he says. “I have a good friend, a postdoc in Alarcón’s lab, who said, ‘You have to see this.'”

Alarcón is Artax’s CSO. Its board of directors is comprised of Tormo, Termeer, Advent general partner Raj Parekh, and three former Eli Lilly executives—Rob Armstrong, Gino Santini, and Javier García. Artax has had to do animal tests to confirm the hypothesis that an Nck inhibitor would not generally impair the immune system. It did not, says Tormo, and now the first round of human tests is showing similar results. Tormo believes that Artax has sewn up the intellectual property around Nck inhibition.

Termeer has been involved with several other biotechs in recent years. For example, X4 Pharmaceuticals launched in stealth in 2012 with seed funding from Termeer and others, and my colleague Ben Fidler got the scoop on the company—including a $37.5 million fundraising—earlier this month.

Image of a healthy T cell courtesy of NIAID via a Creative Commons license.