2015 was a year of change for Blend Therapeutics, led by a new CEO, Drew Fromkin, who was hired in April to lead a different strategy for the Watertown, MA-based startup. And the trend is continuing in 2016 as well: The company has changed its name, raised some cash, and found a new home for the drug that was once its lead asset.
Now named Tarveda Therapeutics, the company has raised a $38 million Series C and brought Novo A/S aboard as a new investor. New Enterprise Associates, a founding investor of Tarveda, led the round along with Novo. With the new cash, Tarveda has now raised $63 million in equity financing and $15 million in debt since its 2012 inception. (The company has drawn down $7 million of the debt since taking the loan out in 2015, according to a Tarveda spokesperson.)
The news marks the first major announcement Tarveda has made since naming Drew Fromkin its CEO last April in the midst of a strategic overhaul. Blend had a two pronged plan when it was originally formed. One was to use nanoparticle technology to make next-generation, targeted versions of platinum-based chemotherapy drugs (like cisplatin). The other was, as its name suggested, to “blend” disparate therapies together. The scientific work behind the company came from MIT’s Omid Farokhzad, Bob Langer, and Stephen Lippard.
Along the way, however, Blend focused its efforts elsewhere, on what it calls “Pentarins.” They’re essentially tinier versions of antibody-drug conjugates, or ADCs, a relatively new type of cancer drug, made up of antibodies linked to toxins, designed to attack tumors like a smart bomb. Pentarins, by comparison, use peptides—much smaller molecules than antibodies—rather than antibodies to target the drug to tumor cells. The proposed benefit: Pentarins’ small size enables them to penetrate tumor tissue more easily than ADCs, overcoming some of ADCs’ inherent limitations. (I wrote in early 2015 about Blend’s transformation, Pentarins, and how they compare to ADCs.)
Completing its shift to Pentarins, Tarveda has now funneled its previous lead drug candidate, a cisplatin-based molecule called BTP-114 that is ready for Phase 1 testing, into a newly formed separate entity called Placon Therapeutics. Tarveda CEO Fromkin, who once steered Clinical Data into a $1.2 billion buyout from Forest Laboratories, won’t provide many specifics about Placon, who is running it, how it’s being funded, and so forth. He’ll only say it’s “distinctly separate in every way from Tarveda,” that none of the company’s current staffers work there, and that it owns BTP-114 and a number of similar “backup assets.”
Why split the company, rather than just licensing out BTP-114? Fromkin says “there will be different phenotypes of partners and investors for each of those products,” so putting the Pentarins in one company and BTP-114 in another would help both entities attract those different types of partners. Plus, Fromkin adds, “it’s very difficult to have disparate products that are in the clinic… it was very much in the interest of the company to focus heavily on the Pentarins.”
That starts with what’s now being called PEN-221 (formerly BTP-277), a Pentarin drug that the company is positioning as a potential treatment for cancers of the neuroendocrine cells, which are involved in hormone production. PEN-221 binds to a protein on the surface of such cells called somatostatin receptor 2, which Fromkin says is overexpressed in certain cancers—small cell lung cancer, for instance—that originate in neuroendocrine cells. Tarveda plans to use diagnostic tools to identify patients whose tumors overexpress the protein, and will begin its first trial in the middle of this year.
Fromkin says PEN-221 uses the chemotherapy drug DM1 as its payload. That also happens to be the drug that one of the few approved ADCs, ado-trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla, formerly known as T-DM1) from Roche/Genentech and ImmunoGen, delivers. Fromkin says Tarveda is “free to use DM1,” though there are “business considerations” involved—he wouldn’t specify what those considerations are.
Tarveda will use the cash it has just raised to advance PEN-221, and to see what other molecular targets might make sense for future drugs. But the early results for PEN-221 will be critical to prove the Pentarin approach works. The good news is the answers could come fairly quickly.
“Because we’re stratifying patients out of the gate, it’s very possible that in Phase 1 we’re going to treat the patients who would see the earliest impact and response to this drug,” Fromkin says.
Nilesh Kumar of Novo Ventures and Frank Torti of NEA have joined Tarveda’s board as part of the funding.