Drug Development

Pfizer seeds diabetes upstart AnTolRx with cash and an option deal

Pfizer is backing a newly minted biotech that is right at the very earliest stage of taking an academic program out of a Harvard lab and seeing if it can translate it into a successful development effort for Type 1 diabetes.

AnTolRx CEO Mark Carthy

AnTolRx CEO Mark Carthy

The new company is AnTolRx, based in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, which now has four full timers and a few key helpers as it builds a new program around a nanoparticle approach to simultaneously present an antigen and tolerance molecule to tamp down the autoimmune response that causes diabetes.

Pfizer, Orion Equity Partners and the non-profit JDRF are putting up $4 million in seed cash to fund the next two years of discovery work. They’ll be focused on the lab work of Harvard’s Francisco Quintana. And AnTolRx CEO Mark Carthy adds that Pfizer has already signed an option deal for the diabetes effort, which includes a potential $50 million payoff in milestones, plus royalties.

But there’s still a long way to go before they hit that stage.

“If you deliver an antigen and a tolerance factor at the same time to a disease,” says Carthy, “that could treat a chronic disease and not build tolerance…It’s a new way of looking at how you treat diabetes patients.”

Carthy isn’t promising instant results. He believes he has about four years to go, including a two-year preclinical stretch, in the lead up to any clinical development program. In the meantime, he’s pursuing some additional talks to see about using the nanoparticle approach they have for other autoimmune conditions, like multiple sclerosis.

Pfizer is stepping in early, he adds, keeping an eye on their progress and offering advice along the way.

JDRF was instrumental in bringing Carthy — a longtime BD vet with stints at Vertex and Cubist before he switched over to the venture field — into the company. In many ways fledgling efforts like this represent a whole new layer of biotech startups that are getting ramped up on seed cash. And with a Big Pharma laying in wait if they’re successful, AnTolRx won’t be expected to proceed into pivotal development alone, where any developer looking to treat a chronic, mass condition like diabetes will face some major league costs.

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