Just six months after unwrapping its B round to push a NASH drug through the clinic, San Diego’s Metacrine is ramping up efforts towards that cause with a $65 million infusion of cash.
The money comes from a long list of new investors led by Venrock, and it brings the startup’s total VC haul to $125 million since its 2015 founding. 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 is tackling therapies in liver, gastrointestinal and metabolic diseases, with a lead NASH program called MET409.
The company’s CEO, Ken Song, who’s led Metacrine for just under two years now, told me late last year 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.
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.
The company plans to use cash from this recent round to finance MET409’s progress in the clinic, with a Phase I study set for early 2019. Metacrine also has plans for applications in IBS-D, and inflammatory bowel disease, and to expand its pipeline through some internal discovery work.
“The strong interest from high-quality investors further validates the potential of MET409 for treating liver and gastrointestinal diseases,” Song said in a statement. “We have purposefully designed an industry leading FXR agonist portfolio with the potential for best-in-class therapy in NASH and first-in-class therapies for IBS-D and IBD.”
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