The innate immune system has become a hot area for drug development, and for good reason. As the body’s first line of defense, its function (or dysfunction) plays a role in many diseases. The problem, says Ventus Therapeutics CEO Marcelo Bigal, is that drug developers have been working in the dark.
Scientists don’t know the structure of many of the innate immune system proteins they’re trying to target and they also lack the tools to work with them in the lab, Bigal says. That leads to a lot of trial and error—like trying to do find your way through a room when the lights are off. Ventus has developed technology that helps scientists understand a protein’s structure, which in turn helps them discover molecules that can target them.
“Not only are the lights on, we sit in a position to understand the biology,” Bigal says.
Ventus, which has operations in Waltham, MA, and Montreal, has been quietly developing its technology for the past year. On Wednesday, the company pulled back the wraps on its work so far and announced a $60 million Series A round of funding. The investment was led by Versant Ventures, the venture capital firm that formed the company and incubated it. GV, the investment arm of Google parent company Alphabet, also participated.
The targets of interest for Ventus are inflammasomes, which are proteins involved in inflammatory responses, and nucleic acid sensing pathways that detect foreign DNA and trigger an immune response. Bigal says hitting inflammasomes and nucleic sensing pathways could address monogenic diseases, which are caused by a mutation to a single gene, as well as immunological disorders such as lupus, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and osteoarthritis. A subset of the inflammasome could also be relevant for cardiometabolic disorders, he adds. Cancer is another possible disease target.
Ventus currently has three programs in its pipeline but Bigal says it’s too early to discuss them in detail. Broadly speaking, he says the Ventus technology is intended to help scientists develop drugs for targets that have eluded drug hunters. The new capital will support Ventus’s three programs. Bigal adds that he is also exploring possible partnerships with larger pharmaceutical companies that have an interest in Ventus’s structural immunology technology.
Versant’s interest in innate immune system drug research began with another startup, Jecure Therapeutics. Bigal says Jecure was developing therapies that target NLRP3, an inflammasome, and Versant led a 2017 Series A financing to support the startup’s development of NASH drugs. The following year, Roche subsidiary Genentech acquired the San Diego-based biotech in order to gain a place in the chase for a drug to treat the liver disease, which currently has no FDA-approved treatment. That deal gave Versant confidence that innate immunity research had come of age, Bigal adds.
Ventus’s scientific founders are Hao Wu and Judy Lieberman of Harvard Medical School, Yale University’s Richard Flavell, Feng Shao of the National Institute of Biological Sciences in Beijing, Douglas Green of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Russell Vance at University of California at Berkeley. Bigal joined Ventus in May 2019 with a resume that included chief medical officer roles at Purdue Pharma and Labrys Biologics, which Teva Pharmaceutical (NYSE: TEVA) acquired in 2014. By November 2019, Bigal says Ventus had “closed the gap” in its ability work with innate immune system proteins. The next step was to raise money to ramp up the research.
Ventus joins a growing group of startups developing drugs that address the innate immune system. Boston-based IFM Therapeutics has struck two deals with Novartis (NYSE: NVS) while remaining free to independently continue its innate immune system drug research. Quench Bio of Cambridge, MA, launched earlier this year with a strategy for blocking gasdermin, an innate immune system protein.