For the past five years, Jigar Patel and a group of fellow Roche employees have been quietly developing drug discovery technology at the global pharma company’s outpost in Madison, WI. Now, they’re setting out on their own to see if their approach to identifying promising peptide-based therapies can have an impact on the sector.
Patel says he and 12 colleagues recently formed a Madison-based spinout of Roche called Nimble Therapeutics, which licensed the drug discovery technology from the Swiss pharma giant.
Today, Nimble officially announced itself to the world and said it completed a Series A venture investment led by San Francisco-based Telegraph Hill Partners. Roche has also invested in Nimble, Patel tells Xconomy. The company’s announcement didn’t disclose the size of the Series A deal, but according to a document filed with the SEC earlier this month, Nimble closed $10 million in equity funding.
Nimble plans to initially operate as a drug discovery company, Patel says. It would identify and enhance molecules that show promise as therapies, and its pharma customers would then try to advance those drug candidates through clinical testing and into the marketplace.
Nimble is focusing on drugs formed from peptides, which are chains of amino acids. Such drugs have appealed to pharmaceutical developers because they are thought to combine desirable properties of both small and large molecule drugs, wielding both the targeting power of large molecule therapies and small molecules’ ability to penetrate target cells.
Despite the purported advantages of peptide therapies, pharma companies have struggled to develop and commercialize such drugs. An industry analysis in spring 2017 found around 60 peptide drugs had been approved up to that point in the US, Europe, and Japan. (By comparison, the FDA approved 59 new drugs in 2018 alone, a record year; the federal agency has averaged 43 drug approvals annually over the past five years, according to a Nature report.) Biotech companies working in peptide drug development include Aileron Therapeutics (NASDAQ: ALRN), which has drug candidates in early- and mid-stage testing, and Bicycle Therapeutics, whose lead candidate is in a Phase 1/2a study, according to Bicycle’s website.
“The peptide therapeutics space is evolving,” says Patel, Nimble’s CEO. “We feel we bring a solution to the field that will rapidly accelerate and/or rescue some of those programs that have struggled in the early stages of discovery.”
Patel says Nimble’s drug discovery approach is based on technology originally developed by NimbleGen, the Madison-based DNA microarray maker that Roche acquired in 2007 for $272.5 million. NimbleGen was one of the Madison region’s largest biotech buyouts in recent memory, but the deal hasn’t been entirely positive for the area. In 2012, Roche said it would cut nearly half of its 100 staffers in Madison, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. The number of local Roche employees has grown since then, but last year the company said it would close the Madison facility by the end of June 2020, resulting in the loss of 79 jobs.
Patel declined to comment on Roche’s decision to close the facility. But he says he’s excited about the new venture and trying to advance NimbleGen’s technology, which has “morphed into new things,” he says. Other members of Nimble Therapeutics’ initial team are former Roche employees Lauren Goodrich-Berto, head of Nimble’s research and development, and Brad Garcia, head of Nimble’s corporate development, Patel says.
In a press release, Nimble says its drug discovery technology allows for the simultaneous chemical synthesis of millions of different natural and modified peptide-based molecules. These molecules can be quickly screened in pursuit of identifying ones that have the potential to treat diseases. Nimble has also developed biological assays that it says can help alter promising molecules to give them more desirable drug-like properties.
Nimble says the speed and flexibility of its system, which Patel says uses light-based synthesis and digital micromirror devices, will give it an advantage in the market. Patel also believes his company’s approach to peptide-based drug discovery will be more comprehensive than competitors.
Competing companies “utilize a variety of different methods of making peptides, but many of them are limited to a very specific chemical space,” Patel says. “We believe we can search a much larger chemical space. … We have the ability to make a variety of different kinds of peptides with many different variants.”
Of course, Nimble will have to prove that its technology works as well as advertised. And even if it does, there are no guarantees that the drug candidates Nimble helps customers identify will then make it through clinical trials and onto the market. Patel says Nimble’s financial arrangements with customers might include receiving an up-front fee for drug discovery services, plus getting payments tied to a drug’s clinical milestones and royalties from future sales if the drug makes it to the market. But Nimble is open to different deal structures, he adds.
Patel says the goal is for Nimble to eventually develop its own drugs in-house. That’s a more challenging ambition than drug discovery, and Patel acknowledges it will take a lot more funding. He says it’s too early to say when Nimble would try to become a drug developer.
“Our immediate focus is to work with partners to do such [drug] discovery,” Patel says.