Decibel Therapeutics raises $82M as Laurence Reid looks to steer gene therapy pivot
Laurence Reid could have picked a better time to take his latest CEO job.
It was January 29 when Decibel Therapeutics announced they were bringing in the former Alnylam and Millennium exec, and the coronavirus was still a distant threat, not even yet named. The job would have been tall enough without a pandemic; after five years and $100 million, Decibel was preparing to pivot its platform in a new direction, working to expand on gene therapy and regeneration. Reid would need to raise the cash to do so.
Still, despite the early bumps of clearing out labs and figuring out how to pitch an investor via Zoom, Reid says they’ve weathered the storm. And today they announced they’ve raised an $82 million Series D led by OrbiMed, nearly doubling their capital to date and giving Reid two years of runway to get a platform they hope can transform hearing into the clinic.
“March, April, when we were still learning so much, [there] was so much uncertainty and a certain degree of fear, so for anyone managing people through that — for any company in any industry but certainly for biotech — is a completely unique challenge,” Reid told Endpoints News.
“But I was really impressed by my new colleagues,” he said, noting they’ve gotten labs and other operations safely back on track. “It’s been really galvanizing to see that actually.”
Decibel finds itself among three major Boston area biotechs chasing cures for hearing disorders, next to the well-heeled gene therapy upstart Akouos and the stem cell regeneration developers at Frequency Therapeutics. Akouos is ahead when it comes to gene therapy, with a candidate nearing the clinic to correct hearing in patients with mutations in the OTOF gene.
Decibel spent years focused on preventing hearing loss, but they pivoted over the winter. Faced with what they characterized as surprising advancements in genomic and regenerative technology and having failed to find a biomarker that could let them run a preventative trial, they decided to scrap key programs and focus on gene therapies that can restore hearing loss.
Developed in partnership with Regeneron, Decibel’s gene therapy for the same protein isn’t scheduled to hit the clinic until 2022, but Reid touted the advantage of the basic science platform they built over the last five years.
“We’ve built this platform for integrating different single cell genomic technology, to look at DNA and RNA and splicing of RNA and we integrate that to give us a complete molecular picture of individual cell types in the inner ear,” he said. They focus that tech on the hair cells that translate signals from the outside world to the brain, and use gene therapies to restore them. “It’s the combination of those platform pieces that uniquely define Decibel,” he said.
Although they’re beginning with fixing a single gene in people with the OTOF mutations, the longer term goal is to build cures for more general hearing loss and balance disorders. It’s an increasingly common line among a subset of gene therapy companies, but first they’ll have to prove that they can just fix a single commonly dysfunctional gene.
Reid said they now have enough money to get that program into the clinic. They’ll hope to follow with the broader approach beginning at the end of 2022, grabbing more cash as they do.
“We felt that given where the company was, we wanted to do a private financing,” Reid said. “We’ll go to the public market when we have the need.”