A startup founded by biotech A-listers has scored $22 million in a Series B round to help develop its NASH drug. The company, called Metacrine, is pursuing a target its founders think can outperform the field’s fierce competition.
The round was led by new investor New Enterprise Associates, while old investors stayed on board. The money brings the company’s total haul to $60 million since its 2015 launch, no doubt buoyed by the reputation of the people involved.
The company was co-founded by serial entrepreneur Rich Heyman — the man behind Aragon and Seragon, which both sold for over $1 billion in the span of one year — and Ronald Evans, the Salk scientist behind a slew of biotech companies, including Ligand Pharmaceuticals and the recently acquired Mitobridge. Both Evans and Heyman are still involved with Metacrine: Heyman is chairman, while Evans sits on the board.
Metacrine has thus far kept its plans mostly under wraps, saying simply the company was working on programs for diabetes, liver disorders, and other metabolic disease. Now, they’re charging forward on a program for fatty liver disease, which it plans to take to the clinic early next year.
The company’s CEO, Ken Song, who’s led Metacrine for a little over a year now, tells me he’s acutely aware of the need to differentiate from other players pursuing NASH.
“This is probably one of the most competitive areas in biotech right now,” Song said. “It’s an enormous disease indication, and there’s no approved therapies in the space. Those two factors are driving a lot of interest. Every week there’s another new angle or new target.”
The startup’s shtick is not to find a brand new target to take down NASH. Instead, Song said the company is focusing on the only clinically-validated target in the space: the Farnesoid X Receptor. FXR is a nuclear hormone receptor, which is a class of proteins Evans happens to be an expert in.
“While there are many drug targets companies are going after, there’s only one that’s been clinically shown to be efficacious at both resolving the disease and reversing fibrosis,” Song said.
The target has been validated by Intercept, a company that’s in its own Phase III trial involving a bile acid FXR agonist in NASH. But Song said this approach appears to come with some unwanted side effects for patients: itchiness and a boost to their LDL cholesterol.
Metacrine has ideas on what’s causing both side effects: the bile acid. So the company plans to try out a non-bile acid FXR agonist in hopes to resolve the issues. Other companies have tried developing NASH drugs with non-bile acid FXR agonists before, but these molecules tend to clear out of the body too quickly to be “best-in-class” when it comes to being effective.
“Bile acids naturally undergo recirculation in the body, so the receptor is continually exposed to its ligand,” Song said. “When companies develop a non-bile acid molecule, the molecules tend to be transient. So you take a pill, these molecules get absorbed and rapidly cleared from the body. We are designing a molecule that doesn’t get cleared rapidly, but rather extends the amount of drug exposure in the blood throughout the day.”
Song said the company expects to complete Phase I trials by the end of 2018.
While most of this new cash will go towards the NASH program, Metacrine also has plans to put some money towards new (undisclosed) disease targets. The company also has a type 2 diabetes program in development in collaboration with Novo Nordisk.
As part of the Series B round, Carol Gallagher, a partner at new investor NEA, will join Metacrine’s board.
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