Low-profile eye drop developer spells out the game plan that drew Brent Saunders to the board — and it involves going earlier than anti-VEGFs
When Brent Saunders took on the chairman role on OcuTerra Therapeutics’ board of directors a few months ago — his first biotech gig since selling Allergan to AbbVie — he drew attention to a startup that wasn’t quite ready for it. The website offered a glimpse of the leadership team, a lead drug, but not much else.
That’s changing now.
OcuTerra is stepping into the limelight with the final close of a $35 million Series B, which is designed to fund a Phase II trial of its lead eye drop and thereby nail down proof of concept for what it calls a non-invasive option for a sizable swath of patients at the early stages of diabetic retinal disease and wet age-related macular degeneration.
While myriad advancements in ophthalmology diagnostics have enabled doctors to recognize and detect eye diseases earlier, treatments haven’t really caught up, CEO Kerrie Brady told Endpoints News. Even though some anti-VEGF drugs are approved in this setting, doctors are hesitant to give patients intravitreal injections before patients show symptoms.
“Until now,” she said, “there’s still nothing you can do. You can just still watch and wait.”
Brady, a seasoned dealmaker who had built Centrexion with ex-Pfizer chief Jeff Kindler, joined the company in June 2020 — when it was still known as SciFluor. The former name alludes to the key technology behind OTT166: selective fluorination of a molecule to change its physical chemical profile and engineer in desired properties.
Even though the technology had given birth to other candidates for CNS disorders and fibrosis, OTT166, a small molecule integrin inhibitor that could be given as an eye drop, emerged as the most promising, leading to the ultimate name change.
Coming more than 15 years after the introduction of VEGF inhibitors, which Brady credits as having “tremendous impact,” OTT166 is being positioned as an easy-to-use way to manage a chronic condition.
Thanks to the precedent set by those invasive drugs, Brady added, “the actual regulatory endpoint for approval in this indication is very clear.” For the Phase II trial, OcuTerra expects to follow patients for at least six months to measure whether its drug can stave off disease progression and improve patients’ vision scores, while exploring a variety of biomarkers. Those results would then pave the way to a Phase III.
With only four people on the full-time payroll — including Brady, chief development and operations officer Scott Edwards and CMO David Tanzer — the broader network of consultants, advisors and board members becomes even more important.
The connection with Saunders came through OcuTerra’s bankers, according to Brady, who came out of their first meeting slightly unsure — until she heard that Saunders “goes quiet like that” when he really likes something. Other board members include Big Pharma vet Robert Ruffolo and William Koster, formerly of Bristol Myers Squibb, who each bring years of experience in the translation stage of drug development that Brady sees OcuTerra in.
“So to me, this is actually the most fun stage of a company,” Brady said.