New biotech startup Akero Therapeutics debuted Monday with $65 million in a Series A round of funding to advance clinical development of a drug for the fatty liver disease nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
Cambridge, MA-based Akero licensed the drug from Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN), which had tested it in Phase 1 studies. Akero said Monday it will use the new capital to bring the drug, AKR-001, into Phase 2 testing.
NASH is a chronic condition in which fat builds up in the liver. This buildup can cause inflammation and damage to liver cells. People who are obese or have diabetes are more likely to develop NASH, which has no FDA-approved treatments and has become an active area of drug development.
The Akero drug is a version of a protein called fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21). Akero points to research from the past decade showing that FGF21 plays a critical role in regulating metabolism and signaling throughout the body, including the liver. Akero says its FGF21 analog is engineered to be more stable and longer acting. The company also says its drug binds better to receptors. In addition to testing the drug for NASH, Akero says it plans to evaluate the drug as a treatment for other metabolic diseases.
A number of companies are pursuing NASH treatments. Intercept Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ICPT), Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD), and Bristol Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMS) all have NASH drug candidates in Phase 2 or 3 studies. Last month, Madrigal Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: MGDL) shares doubled after the company reported encouraging mid-stage clinical trial data for its NASH drug, MGL-3196.
Akero was founded by New York venture capital firm Apple Tree Partners. The Series A funding round for Akera was co-led by Apple Tree, Atlas Venture, venBio, and Versant Ventures.