Veterinarians have a saying that a cat is not a small dog, says Invetx CEO Juergen Horn. Obviously, a dog of any size isn’t the same as a human. But Horn, a veterinarian, says there are enough similarities between the species to take the science behind biological drugs for people and apply it to animals.
Invetx is developing biologic medicines to treat diseases in pets and farm animals. As the Boston-based startup prepares to advance its first drug into clinical testing later this year, it has raised $15 million in Series A funding. The financing was led by Anterra Capital, Invetx’s founding investor. The round included money from WuXi Biologics, which will also collaborate with Invetx on its drug research.
“Our objective is to close the innovation gap between human and veterinary medicine,” Horn says.
Drugs for pets and farm animals have historically come from the animal health divisions of large pharmaceutical companies. Many of their products were repurposed from human health drugs, says Horn, whose experience includes positions at animal health companies NexVet Biopharma, Elanco (NYSE: ELAN), and Novartis Animal Health. But trends are shifting, and animal health is becoming a sector of innovation in its own right, Horn says.
Many big pharmas have sold their animal health operations or spun them out as independent companies, such as Zoetis (NYSE: ZTS), which sprang from Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), and Elanco which emerged from Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY). Pet products are making up a larger share of the revenue generated by these companies. For example, last year, Zoetis’s sales for pet products exceeded livestock product revenue for the first time, according to its annual report. That growth is starkly evident in the US, where dog and cat products account for 59 percent of the company’s revenue.
Meanwhile, Elanco has bostered its pet product portfolio via a series of acquisitions. Horn contends that these industry developments give companies the flexibility to pursue innovative new products for animals, which in turn makes the sector attractive for investors and dynamic for startups such as Invetx.
As the term suggests, biologic drugs are made from biological products such as cells or proteins. Invetx has developing its drugs under the radar for more than a year. The company is aiming for targets and pathways that have already been validated through the research and development of biologic therapies for humans. For now, the company is keeping quiet about which targets and pathways it is researching. But Horn says Invetx aims to treat conditions that would benefit from biotherapeutics—chronic conditions such as allergic skin diseases, pain, diabetes, and cancer.
Invetx isn’t reinventing biologic medicine for animals. Horn says his company doesn’t need to. For example, technology for discovering a monoclonal antibody for humans also applies to identifying antibodies for dogs and cats.
“We can learn from all money spent on human discovery and translate that knowledge,” Horn says.
In some cases, the pathways and the diseases are nearly identical in humans and dogs. But there are differences, and that’s where the saying about cats and small dogs applies. It means that despite similarities in size, a cat and a small dog are different animals that require different treatments. Horn says that even if the technologies Invetx uses have been validated in humans, Invetx still must show that its research is relevant to a disease in a dog or a cat.
Biologic products rank among the most expensive medicines in human health. That’s one aspect of human health drugs that won’t carry over to pet products, Horn says. While some preclinical research is needed, the FDA does not require the same amount of toxicity data for animal drugs as it does for human drugs. Animal clinical trials, which enroll pets with the consent of their owners, are smaller and are typically completed faster than human studies. Those differences translate into lower expenses for a company, and if a product is approved, a lower sales price compared to a human health biologic. That’s important because the vast majority of pet owners do not pay for pet insurance, which means that they pay animal health care expenses out of their own pockets.
Horn says a veterinary drug can reach the market for less than $20 million in research and development expenses—a sum far less than what some biologic startups raise in their Series A rounds. But Invetx won’t spend all of its new cash on its lead antibody drug. Horn wants to build a pipeline of multiple biologic medicines. He adds that the financing round is still open, and Invetx is looking for more investors who want to place a biotech bet on biologic meds for man’s best friend.
Image: iStock/Przemysław Iciak