Drug Development

Cancer biotech upstart grabs $18M round, sets out to master relapsed prostate cancer

Jay Lichter

Jay Lichter

UC San Francisco researcher Bin Liu has spent years in the lab studying how to tackle prostate cancer cells. Recently, he’s been making progress on a new receptor target that he believes can come into play as patients start to become resistant to the new therapies that have hit the market. And now, Jay Lichter and his crew at Avalon Ventures in San Diego are adding a startup to the portfolio that will set out to make it a new drug for the field.

The new biotech has been named Fortis Therapeutics and it now has an $18 million startup round to get into business developing antibody drug conjugates. Lichter will take the reins on Fortis, running it under an umbrella organization that has birthed a wide variety of upstart drug developers over the years.

While Liu has published several studies on his work, including an examination of AR-V7 as a potential target for drug resistant patients, Lichter says that’s not the target they’ll be working with. Liu is about to publish a paper on his new target, and they’re keeping it under wraps until it’s out.

The market opportunity is well defined. Castrate-resistant prostate cancer treatment has been revolutionized over the last few years with the arrival of J&J’s Zytiga and Medivation’s — now Pfizer’s — rival Xtandi. But they aren’t cures. Patients become resistant to them, and that’s where a new drug like this can step in.

This is well advanced work. UCSF provided a drug candidate ready for the clinic, and Lichter tells me that the biotech is ramping up programs for prostate cancer as well as multiple myeloma, where they see some added promise. There’s also mouse data in hand for other cancers as well.

The plan now is to start with a small dose-escalation study and then expand that, looking for some signs of early efficacy as they work out dosage and safety issues. Lichter runs his own shop, so he can afford to be blunt about what he’d like to see happen with Fortis fairly early on.

“The best outcome is somebody buys us for a ton of money,” says the venture chief.

Barring a sweet deal, he’s also open to raising more cash from the syndicate — which now also includes Bregua Corporation, Lilly Asia Ventures, Osage University Partners, and Vivo Capital — and going after a pivotal trial, should the data warrant it. In the meantime, he’s gathering a small team of a half dozen or so execs to run the company, which will be plugged into Avalon’s network of contractors who carry out much of the day-to-day work involved in studying a new drug.

UCSF’s Eric Small, who’s been studying the way resistance to the new drugs develops, is stepping in as head of the scientific advisory board.

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