With $16M Series B, Antiva Hopes to Kill Cancer-Causing HPV

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Antiva Biosciences may have a new name, but its mission is the same: to develop the first antiviral therapy meant to stop human papillomavirus infections from turning into cancer.

The Menlo Park, CA-based company, founded in San Diego three years ago as Hera Therapeutics by Karl Hostetler, now has some funding to pursue its vision. Antiva announced this morning that it has received a $16 million Series B round to help it take its lead antiviral compound, ABI-1968, through Phase 1 trials. The round was led by Canaan Partners and Sofinnova Ventures.

The Series B is small, but Antiva believes it will bring the company through Phase 1 to gain the proof-of-concept data to show that the treatment is safe and biologically active against HPV, the primary cause of cervical cancer, according to Gail Maderis, the company’s newly appointed CEO. The company hopes it can apply ABI-1968, a chemical compound, intra-vaginally as a topical cream. The compound becomes active once inside the HPV cells, Maderis says.

“It’s a pretty streamlined path through the Phase 1 study,” Maderis says. “Then we’ll secure funding to take us further.”

Antiva has already shown some positive results. Last August, the company presented data that showed HTI-1968 blocked the replication of three types of HPV cells, including two that cause 70 percent of cervical cancer. Surgery is currently the only therapy available to women with those types of HPV, the company said at the time.

Antiva hired Maderis as CEO along with the funding announcement, and also said it was appointing pharma executive Steven James as chairman. Maderis most recently ran Northern California biotech industry organization BayBio and, before that, South San Francisco-based Five Prime Therapeutics (NASDAQ: FPRX). James previously ran Labrys Biologics, which sold to Teva last year for $200 million upfront (and potential milestone payments), and KAI Pharmaceuticals, which sold to Amgen for $315 million in 2012.

Vaccines such as Merck’s Gardasil have been available for years, but they’re only preventative and aren’t widely used, as Xconomy’s Bruce Bigelow reported when he profiled the company last year.

“While the vaccines are an important contribution, they’re not solving the problem,” Maderis says. “There’s about $4 billion spent annually on the diagnosis and treatment on HPV. That gives you a picture of the opportunity here.”

Antiva’s compound may be able to do more than just kill HPV. It also may be able to slow the development of cancer if it’s already started, she says. HPV shuts down certain tumor suppressors in cells; by killing the virus, the suppressors may be able to function again, Maderis says.

The company changed its name from Hera (after the Greek goddess, a reference to women’s health) to Antiva (to represent antiviral) to indicate it has broader antiviral potential. Antiva expects it may be able to treat other cancers that can develop from strains of HPV, including anal, neck, and head cancers, Maderis says. The company may also eventually study other compounds it has licensed from Hostetler, the founding CEO, that could potentially target viruses such as HIV, the herpes virus, and cytomegalovirus.

“We hope the new name better reflects the broad scope of our pipeline and our product opportunity, Maderis says.

Hostetler is a titan of the virology industry, having previously founded San Diego-based Vical, Chimerix (NASDAQ: CMRX), and Triangle Pharmaceuticals, which was acquired by Gilead in 2003 for $464 million. Both Chimerix and Triangle are based in Durham, NC.

Antiva, which relocated from San Diego, has previously raised about $2.4 million in other funding.