About 15 percent of adults in the US, around 37 million people, are estimated to have chronic kidney disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They have very few therapeutic options and often progress to kidney failure, which is treatable only with dialysis or transplant.
Chinook Therapeutics is looking to develop new treatments to keep people from reaching this expensive and debilitating end stage, using new lab tools that weren’t available a decade ago.
Backed by a $65 million Series A round led by Versant Ventures, Vancouver, BC-based Chinook Thursday unveiled plans to have multiple therapies enter human testing in 2021 and has recruited Seattle Genetics veteran Eric Dobmeier (pictured above) as president and CEO.
The firm was spawned from Versant’s Inception Sciences group, an incubation unit that has launched seven companies since its start in 2011.
While diabetes and high blood pressure are primary drivers of most kidney disease, Chinook says its four lead drug candidates are intended to treat rare, severe disorders, some of which are genetically driven, then potentially move into more common forms of the disease. They declined to say which diseases they are initially targeting.
While a slew of new cancer treatments have reached the market in recent years, few innovative treatments have been approved for renal conditions, Dobmeier says. “When a patient is diagnosed with kidney disease, often the only tools that nephrologists have are drugs that reduce their blood pressure,” he says.
That’s changing, Dobmeier says, thanks to a better understanding of the disease, more refined translational models, and more flexibility at the FDA in judging a drug’s merits using “surrogate” endpoints—indirect indications that a drug is working—instead of waiting to prove that patients are getting healthier.
Measuring proteinuria—excess protein in the urine—is one surrogate endpoint, and total kidney volume is another, letting companies “do trials that are more efficient—not as long, not as large,” Dobmeier says.
Chinook is also using relatively new techniques in the lab, such as single-cell sequencing, which gives researchers a better understanding of what’s going on cell by cell in a tissue sample, and, perhaps, insight into how to fix it. (Cancer researchers use single-cell sequencing to better understand variability of cells within a tumor.)
Chinook also says it plans to use organoids, small tissue cultures derived from stem cells, in its efforts to develop new treatments. Another kidney-focused startup, Goldfinch Bio, has also said it would use organoids in its drug discovery work. Founded by Third Rock Ventures, Goldfinch launched in late 2016 to explore genetic drivers of kidney disease and struck a $55 million R&D deal with Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD) earlier this year.
Versant managing director Jerel Davis said that with new technologies and insights, “it feels like very much like liver (disease) and NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis) disease did four or five years ago.” This decade, NASH has gone from an underappreciated problem to one of the highest-profile biomedical areas, spurring dozens of deals.
Chinook’s scientific team includes Andrew King as head of renal discovery and translational medicine. King was previously at Fremont, CA-based Ardelyx (NASDAQ: ARDX) and AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV). Co-founder Benjamin Humphreys heads the Washington University division of nephrology. Dobmeier trained and practiced as a lawyer before spending 15 years at Seattle Genetics (NASDAQ: SGEN), rising to become chief operating officer. During his time there the company commercialized a new lymphoma drug, brentuximab vedotin (Adcentris).
About 25 people work in Chinook’s 12,000-square-foot office in Vancouver. The company plans to open an office in Seattle, where Dobmeier is based.
Chinook’s chief business officer, Tom Frohlich, led business development at Vancouver’s Arbutus Biopharma (NASDAQ: ABUS) before joining Versant’s Inception as senior vice president of business development.
Apple Tree Partners, which cofounded Chinook earlier this year, participated in the $65 million round, as did new investor Samsara BioCapital.