Israeli biotech raises $57M to go where current BRAF inhibitors can't, with backing from Novartis, SR One
For the blockbuster potential of Novartis’ Tafinlar and Pfizer’s Braftovi, all the BRAF inhibitors on the market so far only target V600 mutations — which accounts for roughly 50% of patients.
Israeli biotech Novellus now has $57 million to develop a drug that they say can help the other 50% who have everything else.
The Series C will fund a Phase II trial for PLX-8394, a “paradox breaker” that could block RAF without activating MAPK signaling. In a Phase I trial, a patient with a BRAF fusion saw their tumor go away after taking the drug, allowing Novellus to hit the ground running.
“At the end of the day, clinical data trumps everything,” Ohad Hammer of Pontifax, which led the round, told Endpoints News.
Having Novartis, which knows the space “inside out,” participate through its venture arm doesn’t hurt, either. OrbiMed Advisors, HBM Healthcare Investments, Wellington Management, Cormorant Asset Management and SR One, among others, formed the rest of the well-heeled syndicate.
Novellus didn’t start out with BRAF in mind. Rather, it’s spent much of the past eight years building and validating a tech platform to analyze patients’ genomes and, by synthesizing their mutations in vitro, test which compounds they might respond to.
That changed when Michael Vidne, a former director and chief commercial officer, was promoted to CEO in early 2019.
“What we decided to do is instead of finding the right drugs for a specific patient, we said to ourselves, ‘Let’s find the right patients for a specific drug,’” he said.
Shifting focus, they quickly identified a big gap in the BRAF space and the search took them to Plexxikon, a subsidiary of Daiichi Sankyo, from which they licensed PLX-8394 earlier this year.
While Plexxikon had positioned the drug to target patients who relapse after taking currently approved BRAF inhibitors, Novellus managed to convince them — with lots of data from its platform — that it has a superior strategy.
“It wasn’t easy,” Vidne chuckled.
But now that he has his first deal and the cash to execute his plan with 12 staffers, Novellus has several other licensing deals lined up in the cancer space, hitting different genes they’ve analyzed.
With PLX-8394, Hammer noted that future studies will focus on fusions, certain BRAF-mutated gliomas as well as other niche indications.