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.

Meri­am Kab­baj

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.”

Vince Forster

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)

Tar­get­ing a Po­ten­tial Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of Cer­tain Can­cers with DNA Dam­age Re­sponse

Every individual’s DNA is unique, and because of this, every patient responds differently to disease and treatment. It is astonishing how four tiny building blocks of our DNA – A, T, C, G – dictate our health, disease, and how we age.

The tricky thing about DNA is that it is constantly exposed to damage by sources such as ultraviolet light, certain chemicals, toxins, and even natural biochemical processes inside our cells.¹ If ignored, DNA damage will accumulate in replicating cells, giving rise to mutations that can lead to premature aging, cancer, and other diseases.

Roivant par­lays a $450M chunk of eq­ui­ty in biotech buy­out, grab­bing a com­pu­ta­tion­al group to dri­ve dis­cov­ery work

New Roivant CEO Matt Gline has crafted an all-equity upfront deal to buy out a Boston-based biotech that has been toiling for several years now at building a supercomputing-based computational platform to design new drugs. And he’s adding it to the Erector set of science operations that are being built up to support their network of biotech subsidiaries with an eye to growing the pipeline in a play to create a new kind of pharma company.

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Fol­low biotechs go­ing pub­lic with the End­points News IPO Track­er

The Endpoints News team is continuing to track IPO filings for 2021, and we’ve designed a new tracker page for the effort.

Check it out here: Biopharma IPOs 2021 from Endpoints News

You’ll be able to find all the biotechs that have filed and priced so far this year, sortable by quarter and listed by newest first. As of the time of publishing on Feb. 25, there have already been 16 biotechs debuting on Nasdaq so far this year, with an additional four having filed their S-1 paperwork.

Ken Frazier, Merck CEO (Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck takes a swing at the IL-2 puz­zle­box with a $1.85B play for buzzy Pan­dion and its au­toim­mune hope­fuls

When Roger Perlmutter bid farewell to Merck late last year, the drugmaker perhaps best known now for sales giant Keytruda signaled its intent to take a swing at early-stage novelty with the appointment of discovery head Dean Li. Now, Merck is signing a decent-sized check to bring an IL-2 moonshot into the fold.

Merck will shell out roughly $1.85 billion for Pandion Pharmaceuticals, a biotech hoping to gin up regulatory T cells (Tregs) to treat a range of autoimmune disorders, the drugmaker said Thursday.

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Per­cep­tive's fourth — yes, fourth — SPAC jumps to Nas­daq as the blank check tree con­tin­ues to ripen

The biotech SPAC boom has gone almost hand-in-hand with the industry’s IPO gold rush, and this week saw more blank check companies hop aboard the train.

Leading the way is Perceptive Advisors’ fourth SPAC, appropriately named Arya Sciences Acquisition IV, which priced Friday morning after raising $130 million. And on top of that, new Ziopharm executive chair James Huang is launching his own SPAC with MSD Partners and Panacea Venture, filing S-1 paperwork Thursday with plans to raise $200 million.

CEO Fred Aslan (Artiva)

NK cell ther­a­py play­er Arti­va makes some more noise, pulling in $120M Se­ries B less than a month af­ter Mer­ck deal

Not even one month after Big Pharma took notice of Artiva when Merck signed a collaboration worth nearly $2 billion in milestones, the off-the-shelf NK cell biotech already has its next big fundraise.

Artiva returns from the venture well Friday with a $120 million Series B round, money they will use to get their first program into the clinic and to file INDs for another two candidates. The raise marks the latest development in a rapidly expanding footprint for Artiva, which, in addition to the Merck deal last month, has now raised almost $200 million since its Series A last June.

With dust set­tled on ac­tivist at­tack, Lau­rence Coop­er leaves Zio­pharm to a new board

Laurence Cooper has done his part.

In the five years since he left a tenured position at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center to become CEO of Boston-based Ziopharm, he’s steered the small-cap immunotherapy player through patient deaths in trials, clinical holds, short attacks and, most recently, an activist attack on the board.

So when the company has “fantastic news” like an IND clearance for a TCR T cell therapy program, he’s ready to pass on the baton.

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Doug Ingram (file photo)

Why not? Sarep­ta’s third Duchenne MD drug sails to ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval

Sarepta may be running into some trouble with its next-gen gene therapy approach to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But when it comes to antisense oligonucleotides, the well-trodden regulatory path is still leading straight to an accelerated approval for casimersen, now christened Amondys 45.

We just have to wait until 2024 to find out if it works.

Amondys 45’s approval was unceremonious, compared to its two older siblings. There was no controversy within the FDA over approving a drug based on a biomarker rather than clinical benefit, setting up a powerful precedent that still haunts acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock as biotech insiders weighed her potential permanent appointment; no drama like the FDA issuing a stunning rejection only to reverse its decision and hand out an OK four months later, which got more complicated after the scathing complete response letter was published; no anxious tea leaf reading or heated arguments from drug developers and patient advocates who were tired of having corticosteroids as their loved ones’ only (sometimes expensive) option.

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Steve Cutler, Icon CEO (Icon)

In the biggest CRO takeover in years, Icon doles out $12B for PRA Health Sci­ences to fo­cus on de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal work

Contract research M&A had a healthy run in recent years before recently petering out. But with the market ripe for a big buyout and the Covid-19 pandemic emphasizing the importance of decentralized trials, Wednesday saw a tectonic shift in the CRO world.

Icon, the Dublin-based CRO, will acquire PRA Health Sciences for $12 billion in a move that will shake up the highest rungs of a fragmented market. The merger would combine the 5th- and 6th-largest CROs by 2020 revenue, according to Icon, and the merger will set the newco up to be the second-largest global CRO behind only IQVIA.

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