Unity Bio Restructuring Cuts 30% of Staff, Keeps Focus on Eye Drug

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Unity Biotechnology is cutting nearly one third of its staff, a move that comes a month after the biotech’s lead drug candidate failed a mid-stage study in osteoarthritis.

South San Francisco-based Unity (NASDAQ: UBX) says that the corporate restructuring announced Tuesday should make the cash that it has left last through mid-2022, when data are expected for data the eye drug programs that are now the company’s focus. According to Unity’s second quarter financial report, the company had $39.6 million in cash and cash equivalents as of June 30.

Unity develops treatments for diseases of aging, which the company says are driven by senescent cells—cells that have stopped dividing but still secrete copious amounts of proteins associated with aging. Unity says senescent cells accumulate with age and the proteins that they produce lead to diseases affecting the eye, heart, brain, and joins. The company is developing drugs intended to eliminate senescent cells.

Unity’s former lead drug candidate, UBX0101, was in clinical testing as a treatment for moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis of the knee. In Phase 2 results released last month, the small molecule drug failed to beat a placebo in reducing knee pain.

After UBX0101’s failure, Unity turned its focus to a preclinical compound for eye diseases. UBX1325 is a small molecule designed to block Bcl-xL, a protein that inhibits cell death. This pathway has been studied in oncology but Unity is interested in using Bcl inhibitors to eliminate senescent cells that contribute to age-related diseases of the eye.

UBX1325 came to Unity via a licensing agreement with China-based Ascentage Pharma Group, which granted the Bay Area biotech rights to develop its Bcl inhibitors for non-cancer applications. A June 29 amendment to that deal made UBX1325 the licensed compound covered by the agreement. Another molecule, UBX1967, was designated as the back-up program.

In July, Unity announced that it had completed the preclinical work needed to seek FDA permission to begin a clinical trial testing UBX1325. Upon filing that paperwork with the agency, Unity is obligated to issue 133,333 shares to Ascentage Pharma and the unnamed academic institution that initially licensed the technology to the Chinese company, according to Unity’s securities filings. Starting a Phase 1 study puts Unity on the hook for a $1 million milestone payment, payable in cash or additional stock. Unity expects the Phase 1 study for UBX1325 will start by the end of this year. The company plans to evaluate the compound as a treatment for diabetic macular edema.

Unity says the restructuring, which will cut 30 percent of its staff, will leave it with about 75 full-time employees by the end of 2020. By mid-2022, the company expects it will have Phase 1 trial data in hand for UBX1325, as well as preclinical data for UBX1967. The restructuring leaves intact Unity’s preclinical research on treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.

Image: iStock/seb_ra


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