Dauntless Pharmaceuticals formed in 2016, and its founders said the Sofinnova Ventures-backed firm planned to take a new approach to building biotechs.
Instead of advancing a broad stable of early-stage drug candidates under the same roof, Dauntless aimed to set up each asset within its own company. The idea was that when it came time to sell or license an investigational drug, it would be easier to get it out the door if it wasn’t entangled with other, ongoing R&D.
Now its founders are throwing out that game plan and reverting to the traditional biotech model. Olivier Laurent and Joel Martin (pictured above, from left), who started San Diego’s Dauntless together, are now focused on building Intrepida Bio, a company formed around a preclinical antibody developed by Italian pharmaceutical company Biouniversa. The new venture is backed by $9.5 million from Sofinnova and Canaan Ventures.
Intrepida, launched last week, plans to advance work by Biouniversa’s Maria Caterina Turco, who studied a protein, BAG3, that is overexpressed by some cancer tumors—especially pancreatic tumors.
Biouniversa’s research found the protein in tissue samples from 346 patients with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas, the most common form of pancreatic cancer. Scientists reported that especially high levels of the protein were associated with a poorer prognosis.
The investigators at Biouniversa determined that when the protein leaves the cancer cell, it acts as a signaling molecule, binding to a receptor on macrophages and, in essence, hijacking those immune cells into supporters and protectors of the tumor. Turco, a professor at the University of Salerno who is now also chairwoman of Intrepida’s scientific advisory board, developed an anti-BAG3 antibody designed to disrupt that feedback loop.
“This was so compelling that we decided to focus our entire efforts on that rather than continuing this model of multiple entities,” said Martin, Intrepida’s CEO. “This is a big enough deal that we’re really putting all of our efforts into this new technology.”
That antibody, Intrepida’s lead drug candidate, IB001, is intended to slow tumor growth and make it more vulnerable to attacks by the body’s innate immune system.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 56,770 people in the US will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, and 45,750 will die of the disease. The cancer makes up about 3 percent of all cancers in this US but 7 percent of all cancer deaths, according to the ACS, making it one of the most deadly types of cancer.
Many drug developers have tried and failed to develop treatments for pancreatic cancer. Another San Diego biotech, Halozyme (NASDAQ: HALO), on Monday announced a corporate restructuring after its pancreatic drug candidate failed in Phase 3 testing.
In acknowledgement of that difficulty, Intrepida is also working on programs to advance its antibody as a potential treatment for other cancers, Martin said.
The initial equity investment will fund the studies needed to get IB001 ready for the pancreatic cancer clinical trials. The company will need to raise more to cover the costs of advancing it through the first phase of tests in humans, studies it intends to start in 2021, Martin said.
At the moment, Martin and Laurent, Intrepida’s chief scientific officer, are the company’s only full-time employees: The company is mostly virtual, but over the next year, Martin says it will likely add five or six full-time staffers.
Biouniversa investors Indaco Venture Partners and Vertis SGR are also now backing Intrepida.