Swiss biotech raises $16M to test 'undelivery mechanism' for rare liver disease
The process is grinding and often terminal, like a fine car with a transmission patched up a dozen times but still jamming and in dire need of replacement. Patients with late-stage chronic liver disease will decompensate (lose organ function) and though that instance can be treated, each time is like another jolt on the gears. Eventually, the car won’t drive. There are transplants, but over half of the patients die waiting for those.
A new method from Swiss biotech Versantis wouldn’t cure chronic liver disease but it promises to give far better immediate care and offer a treatment for a couple rare forms of liver disease that currently leave patients without good options short of a transplant. The company just took in $16 million in Series B funding to put its platform through first-in-human and efficacy trials in small subsets of a disease that kills around 2 million worldwide very year.
“This is a very disruptive technology,” Versantis co-founder and COO Meriam Kabbaj told Endpoints News. “Liver disease is only growing and cause many deaths year after year and so far there haven’t been any efficient treatments.”
Versantis’s platform works by taking a popular and well-researched drug delivery method called liposomes and turning it on its head, to create what CEO Vince Forster called an “undelivery mechanism”: Rather than delivering drugs, it takes out toxins. Two liters of liquid filled with “microscavengers” — their VS-01 drug — would be administered into a patient’s belly. The scavengers would swoop up ammonia and other toxins the liver can no longer metabolize, and then the solution is simply taken out.
“What we can provide is the same efficiency as dialysis,” Kabbaj said, “but the main difference is that it’s much safer and it can be implemented very early on.”
Although liver disease is one of the most common in the developed world, Versantis currently focuses on niche areas within it: decompensated liver cirrhosis that has caused a form of diminished brain function called hepatic encephalopathy and acute-on-chronic liver failure, the more severe disease for which they’ve received FDA orphan drug status in 2017. A Phase I trial they say promises some efficacy data is just underway and the Series B money will fund a Phase IIa trial.
Versantis is not the only company getting into the rapidly growing liver game. Another young Swiss biotech, Alentis, got nearly as much in March for their Series A funding while Belgium’s Promethera Biosciences collected $44 million in May for end-stage liver disease, among others. The area can be a minefield, though. Last year, Vital Therapies saw its stock fall 88% to $0.70 after its platform to treat acute liver disease bombed a Phase III trial.
But Kabbaj argued that Versantis had an edge because unlike other treatments, its microscavengers remove not just ammonia but other toxic metabolites. And it’s not only the liver. Other parts of the body, including the brain and kidneys, which also see toxic buildup from liver disease, benefit as well.
Versantis is also looking at broader applications for the drug, including for broader forms of liver disease, for a condition in infants that causes potentially fatal buildups in ammonia and, further down, for treating opiod overdoses.
Swisscanto Invest by Zürcher Kantonalbank led the financing , Esperante Ventures and new private investors. Redalpine HealthEquity and Zürcher Kantonalbank Start-up Finance, both existing investors, also participated in this round.
Social image left to right: Vince Forster, Sophie Biguenet, Rekha Johnson, Meriam Kabbaj (Versantis)