Akebia Adds $15M in Series A for Anemia, Vascular Disease Drugs
(BioWorld Today Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Financings Roundup
In its first major round of venture financing since being founded last year to develop drug candidates targeting the large anemia and vascular disease markets, Akebia Therapeutics Inc. raised $15.1 million in Series A funds to push those products into clinical testing next year.
The Cincinnati-based firm has been working over the past year to finish up preclinical work on its two programs - both licensed from neighboring Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals Inc. - with the goal of moving into the clinic with lead product, AKB-6548, an oral hypoxia-inducible factor prolyl hydroxylase (HIF-PH) inhibitor, in anemia sometime in mid-2009, said Joseph Gardner, Akebia co-founder and CEO.
A small-molecule drug, AKB-6548 is designed to inhibit the HIF-PH enzyme to actively up-regulate HIF, resulting in increased production of erythropoietin in anemia patients, Gardner said.
The estimated $10 billion anemia market is dominated by erythropoiesis-stimulating agents Aranesp (darbepoetin alfa) and Epogen (epoetin alfa) from Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Amgen Inc., and Procrit (epoetin alfa) from Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Ortho Biotech, but those products have come under fire after data linked their use with increased cardiovascular risks. With its small-molecule HIF-PH approach, Akebia is hoping to sidestep similar safety concerns.
In animal models, the activation of HIF has produced endogenous erythropoietin (EPO) production, and "we're optimistic of its safety as well," Gardner said. "Given all the clouds that have surrounded the ESAs over the last two years, we hope we can avoid" those safety issues with AKB-6548.
And safety might not be the only benefit of an HIF-PH inhibitor.
"We hope clearly to be able to compete on a cost basis," Gardner told BioWorld Today, since small molecules typically are easier and less expensive to manufacture than protein therapeutics like the injectable EPO products.
For now, the focus is on moving AKB-6548 into the clinic. "We need to make sure we have an EPO signal and that we can increase hemoglobin levels," he said.
Once those data are firmly in hand, the product should be attractive to prospective partners, he added.
Following close behind ABK-6548, Akebia has a program targeting human receptor-linked protein tyrosine phosphatase-beta (HPTP-beta), which is aimed at stimulating angiogenesis in peripheral artery disease.
That program is "very exciting scientifically," Gardner said. "It turns out that by [inhibiting that HPTP-beta phosphatase] you up-regulate multiple growth factors" - in this case, not just vascular endothelial growth factor, but also angiopoietin (ANG1) through its Tie-2 receptor. "By up-regulating that, you not only stimulate angiogenesis, you also help with vessel stabilization."
It's particularly intriguing because there have been a lot of recent data pointing to ANG1 and ANG2 as potential targets in cardiovascular disease, "so we may be sitting right on top of that," he added.
Both of Akebia's products have large market potential, which might be what helped it attract an impressive slate of investors, particularly at a time when financing of any kind is hard to come by. Gardner, though, said he attributed it to the "feeling that VCs tend to be a little leery of companies that are dependent on an IPO [initial public offering] exit."
With its small staff - Akebia has eight employees, though Gardner described it as a "highly networked company" - the firm could end up a promising M&A option, an exit that has proved far more lucrative to biotechs in recent years than IPOs, even before the IPO window slammed shut late last year.
Gardner said funds from the Series A "should take us through most of 2009."
After that, the firm will have to look at its options. But given the preclinical data generated so far, Gardner said Akebia's outlook is an optimistic one, even if the financing environment is a tough place to navigate these days.
"Pharma companies still have a fair amount of cash and a number of needs in their pipelines, so I don't think we'll have too much trouble," he said. And if the company gets pressed for cash, it might just consider partnering one of its programs a little earlier than planned.
The Series A round was led by Kearny Venture Partners, of San Francisco, along with Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis Venture Fund and Madison, Wis.-based Venture Investors. New investor Athenian Venture Partners, of Athens, Ohio, and existing investors Triathlon Medical Ventures, of Cincinnati, and Sigvion Capital, of Chicago, also participated.
With the financing, Akebia also named to its board Anupam Dalal, of Kearny, along with Campbell Murray, of Novartis Venture Fund, and Paul Weiss, of Venture Investors. Suzette Dutch, of Triathlon; Daniel Kosoy, of Athenian; and Michael Pape, of Sigvion, will serve as observers.
The company has raised about $16.5 million in seed and venture funding to date, and it also received a $500,000 grant from the Global Cardiovascular Innovation Center, a cardiovascular and product development organization led by the Cleveland Clinic and funded by the state of Ohio's Third Frontier Project.
In other financings news:
? BioTrove Inc., of Woburn, Mass., filed to withdraw its S-1 statement for an initial public offering. The firm filed for the offering in April, hoping to raise funds to support ongoing development of its OpenArray and RapidFire product lines and other general corporate expenditures.
? Helicos BioSciences Corp., of Cambridge, Mass., said it is raising about $18.6 million in gross proceeds through a private placement of shares of common stock and warrants. Under the terms, Helicos agreed to sell about 42.8 million units - each unit consisting one common share and one warrant to purchase 0.6 shares at an exercise price of 46 cents per share - at a purchase price of 43.5 cents each. The company anticipates net proceeds of $17.9 million, which it plans to use for working capital and general corporate purposes. The offering is expected to close on or about Dec. 23 and included current investors Flagship Ventures, Atlas Venture, Highland Capital and Versant Ventures. Helicos develops genetic analysis technologies for the research, drug discovery and diagnostic markets. n
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