iPierian could easily have crashed a couple years ago as just another overhyped stem cell startup. But the South San Francisco-based company has quietly kept plugging away the past couple years, and the reinvented antibody drug developer just secured a fresh $30 million in financing to take its two leading product candidates into clinical trials.
The $30 million deal is being co-led by GlaxoSmithKline’s SR One venture group, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and MPM Capital, and all of iPierian’s existing investors are participating, including Google Ventures.
Part of the money will go to an antibody drug in development at iPierian for Alzheimer’s. The rest is going to an iPierian spinoff called True North Therapeutics that will develop an antibody drug for rare autoimmune diseases, although the new company isn’t really new. Both development programs will continue to be overseen by iPierian CEO Nancy Stagliano, and the development work will be done by the same 22-person staff that advanced the drugs over the past year. Splitting the programs up may make the programs more attractive for potential partners who may only be interested in one drug, Stagliano says. The company isn’t disclosing whether the financing is coming in the form of equity or debt.
iPierian had raised more than $60 million before today’s announcement, as it sought to lead the way with stem cell biology for drug development. The idea was that by pushing ordinary adult cells into a stem-cell like state, and coaxing them to differentiate into specific cells like neurons, researchers would have a strong basic platform for modeling diseases like Alzheimer’s and testing new drugs under conditions that would help researchers better predict how drugs would behave in humans.
As some of the shine came off stem cells, at least for their immediate application in drug discovery, iPierian re-cast itself a couple of years ago as a more focused drug developer under Stagliano’s leadership. The result is a company that is aiming to be the first mover with an antibody against Tau proteins that are thought to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. The other antibody in development is supposed to tamp down rare autoimmune reactions by working on a specific part of the innate immune system known as the classic complement pathway. If things break right, iPierian could be ready to get both programs in clinical trials in 2014, Stagliano says.
“We’ve been really excited about both programs,” Stagliano says.
Beth Seidenberg, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, said in a statement that iPierian under Stagliano has made “remarkable progress in transforming the proprietary stem cell platform into meaningful drug development programs.”
Lots of work still remains to create value in each program. iPierian has identified an antibody candidate that binds tightly with a truncated form of the Tau protein, and has developed a process for small scale manufacturing necessary for trials, Stagliano says. The antibody has been tested in a couple of different animal models, in which animals overexpressed a mutant form of the human Tau protein that’s thought to be a bad actor in Alzheimer’s disease as well as other diseases like progressive supranuclear palsy and frontotemporal dementia. While several companies have tried and failed to make antibodies to fight Alzheimer’s by fighting amyloid beta plaques, no one has yet taken an antibody into human trials that’s supposed to work against Tau.
“There’s still some good work to be done with amyloid beta. But Tau biology seems to be really compelling. It makes sense for us to put our energy there. We could be the first,” Stagliano says.
The other program, technically under the banner of True North Therapeutics, is still a little earlier in development. That antibody has been “humanized”—a standard step to make it less likely to provoke an immune reaction—but the company still needs to complete certain manufacturing steps needed to begin trials, Stagliano says. Ipierian isn’t saying what the molecular target is, or what disease it is planning to go after first, although it is being designed to work on a more narrow part of the complement pathway than Alexion Pharmaceuticals’ eculizumab (Soliris), Stagliano says. The iPierian program is a little behind the anti-Tau antibody in development, but could still reach the clinic in 18 months, she said.