Isis Spinoff Altair Therapeutics Closes $17M Venture Round For Asthma Drug

[Corrected: 7:26 am Pacific, 11/12/09] San Diego-based Altair Therapeutics, a company developing inhalable drugs to block inflammatory proteins involved in asthma and other respiratory diseases, has closed on the second part of a Series A venture financing, meaning it has raised a total of $17 million this year. [An earlier version said the company has raised $17 million since inception, but that tally didn’t count an undisclosed seed investment].

Domain Associates led the latest investment round, and AgeChem Venture Fund joined previous investors Thomas, McNerney & Partners, Forward Ventures, and the group that spun out Altair’s technology in the first place—Carlsbad, CA-based Isis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ISIS). Altair plans to use the cash to finish a mid-stage clinical trial of 30 asthma patients who will be randomly assigned to get the company’s AIR645 drug candidate, or a placebo.

Altair actually got started two years ago by Isis and Thomas McNerney. The idea was to see if Altair could apply the things Isis knew about gene-silencing technology, known as antisense, as an inhalable drug for respiratory diseases. The concept was an offshoot that wasn’t part of Isis’ core portfolio of drugs for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. The idea was to make this inhaled antisense drug block a couple of inflammatory proteins that are implicated in asthma attacks—IL-4 and IL-13. The company says it has found some surprisingly encouraging results in early human tests on about 80 people. If that can be confirmed in subsequent trials, it could offer a new treatment option for a disease that affects about one out of every 18 people in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health.

“This is a great opportunity for antisense drugs,” said CEO Joel Martin, when I visited his office a few weeks ago. On the statement announcing today’s financing, he added: “We are thrilled.”

The Altair story really began in October 2007, around the same time another company spun out of Isis, called Excaliard Pharmaceuticals. In the case of Altair, Susan Gregory was the inventor and champion of the asthma drug’s prospects inside Isis. She ended up spinning the technology outside the company with help from Pratik Shah, a partner with Thomas McNerney. The deal was structured so that Isis would own 18 percent of the new company in preferred stock, and it stands to receive development milestones and royalties if Altair is successful.

Martin, one of the early scientists at Isis, first got exposed to the technology while he was still a partner with Forward Ventures in San Diego. He left Forward in October 2008, and liked what he saw at one of its portfolio companies, Altair, that he personally joined as CEO in May.

Ivor Royston, a partner with Forward and a member of Altair’s board, told my colleague Bruce Bigelow yesterday that he considers Altair an obvious pick for the portfolio.

“Even in the worst market, with the most restricted kind of financing, this would be a good investment,” Royston says. “This company is in the sweet spot for any venture capital firm.”

Altair sees plenty of room in the market for a new asthma drug. People use inhaled … Next Page »

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