Kallyope lands $112 million Series C to ride the gut-brain axis for another 3 years
Five years after their launch, Kallyope and the gut-brain axis are headed to the clinic — and they’re getting a new fire hose of cash to do so.
The biotech announced a $112 million in Series C funding that will help bring their lead weight loss drug into the clinic later this year and a drug for inflammatory bowel disease not long after. The syndicate contains a long list of backers, most of whom had previously invested, including The Column Group, Lux Capital, Polaris Partners, Euclidean Capital, Two Sigma Ventures, Illumina Ventures, Alexandria Venture Investments and Bill Gates. Four new investors joined: Casdin, Greenspring and two unnamed institutional investors.
“This lead program targets cells in the gut to release hormones tied to satiety,” CEO Nancy Thornberry told Endpoints News. It’s “historically a challenging area for the pharmaceutical industry but we are able to overcome a lot of the previous challenges.”
The coronavirus pandemic could delay that timeline, though, Thornberry acknowledged. With New York on all-but lockdown, the company is staffing only essential personnel and have sent everyone else home, where they are reviewing the data amassed over the last four years. Much of their chemistry and some in vivo pharmacology work is contracted out and is continuing, Thornberry said.
“We are on track with our preclinical study, however obviously the environment is evolving quickly and much of that remains out of our control,” she said. “We’re building contingency plans.”
Thornberry knows a thing or two about the gut. At Merck, She led the development of Januvia, the first drug to target the gut hormone GLP-1 to help diabetics manage their blood sugar. Then, in 2015, she was recruited to lead a biotech with an interesting approach to those hormones and some of the diseases Thornberry had been working on.
People have known for centuries that the brain and the gut communicate in unique, two-directional ways: Drugging certain neurons can provoke sudden shifts in blood sugar; changes to certain cells and signals in the gut may contribute to diseases like Parkinson’s. Around 2015, there was an explosion in the interest in this so-called gut-brain axis as new technologies allowed researchers to study — and potentially drug — this internal, two-lane highway. Novo Nordisk dipped their feet. Rhythm Metabolic and Axial Biotherapeutics launched. So did Kallyope, landing a $44 million Series A and recruiting Thornberry as CEO.
The company has spent the last four years using single-cell sequencing and other techniques to map out the circuits that connect the spheres. Some are hormonal — and some of those are familiar: GLP-1, CCK, etc. The others are neural, operating through the vagus nerve.
“We can look at hormones released in the gut and we can look at where the receptors are on different neurons in the vagus,” Thornberry said. “Then we can use some other elements of our technology to understand the function of those vagal neurons.”
The results, at times, have been surprising. Researchers had once believed there were about 6 specialized hormone-secreting cells in the gut. Now they have tracked over 20. “We just have a much broader, much more comprehensive understanding of what the system looks like,” Thornberry said.
Kallyope has been circumspect on the precise mechanism behind their lead program, but the broad stroke looks like this: Take hormones long understood to regulate hunger and satiety — GLP-1, neurotensin, CCK — and find ways of controlling the release of those hormones through cells directly in the gut, as opposed to with small molecules that will diffuse throughout the body.
“One way to think about it as a safe way to the brain,” Thornberry said.
The second program, not far behind, will try to tackle inflammatory bowel disease through a phenomenon called barrier function. The idea is that epithelial cells that line and insulate the gut are compromised, allowing metabolites and toxins to trickle to the rest of the body and cause several diseases, including allergy and autism.
Even if Covid-19 delays that timeline, the Series C should give them plenty of wiggle room. They will now have 3 years of cash runway.