Thanks to a $77.5M Series B, Escient moves into the clinic with the first of its sensory receptor candidates
A little over two years after emerging from stealth, Escient Pharmaceuticals is back Monday with a new fundraising round and their first clinical trial.
The San Diego-based biotech announced a $77.5 million Series B and a Phase I/Ib study for their EP547 program, which is aiming to treat the neurological “itch” that can manifest when bile and waste products are backed up in the liver and kidneys, respectively. This would be the first in what CEO Alain Baron hopes is a long line of Mas-related G protein-coupled receptor candidates.
“We should have an IND on average once every year and a half or so,” Baron said. “So it allows us to develop the value of some of these early targets and create optionality for us to move the company forward in a number of ways, and of course we’ll be data-driven.”
Sanofi’s VC arm and Cowen Healthcare Investments led the round and were joined by new investors Redmile and Perceptive. All previous investors, including The Column Group, 5AM Ventures and Osage University Partners, pitched in again.
MRGPRs, a family of GPCRs, have been the focus of Escient since its founding, stemming from research by Johns Hopkins neurologist and Escient scientific founder Xinzhong Dong. Within the MRGPR umbrella are eight sensory receptor targets, four of which have been de-orphaned in the last six years, Baron said, while the remaining four are still being decoded. Escient expects the targets to serve a wide range of therapeutic uses and has spent the last two years trying to understand everything about this family while prepping their clinical programs.
“Each receptor can be utilized with an antagonist to treat more than one disorder, so if you think about that, it’s pretty daunting if we were to discover utilities for all eight,” Baron said. “We could have eight times two, eight times three indications. We’re going to be very disciplined in how we do this.”
Escient CSO Marcus Boehm, previously the co-founder of the biotech Receptos that sold to Celgene for $7.2 billion in 2015, added that MRGPRs “each recognize a unique agonist, so they clearly have a function where they recognize something in the environment, or endogenously, that is unique from one another.”
EP547 centers around MRGPRX4, an itch receptor triggered in cholestasis and uremia. Though the conditions don’t cause an itch in the typical sense, patients’ brains perceive the sensation of bile leakage as an itch — causing debilitating and even “embarrassing” discomfort in some cases, Baron said.
From the patient’s perspective, an eventual therapy would likely be a once-a-day pill to antagonize the receptors. Should the drug prove effective, Baron anticipates the treatment to function similarly to an antihistamine, dramatically reducing the itch sensation on the first administration.
“It improves the quality of life for these patients that have really unbearable itch,” Baron said. “Think about being stung by 100 mosquitoes every day and you get a sense of the disturbance in your life that you would experience.”
The Phase I/Ib trial has already begun enrolling, and topline data are expected sometime in the first half of next year. Escient plans to examine multiple doses of the candidate in a group of about 100 individuals divided into several cohorts in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled setting.
While that work goes on, the biotech has a second program in the works targeting MRGPRX2, a mast-cell based receptor, which could prove as a workaround in diseases that are not responsive to conventional mast-cell stabilizing drugs. And with enough runway to take them past the lead program’s Phase II and the latter’s Phase Ib, Baron is excited for what’s to come in this family of targets.
“MRPGRs are very interesting in that each is amenable to probably more than one indication,” Baron said. “So what we’re trying to do is prosecute these receptors, and basically we do so agnostic to the therapeutic area…whether it’s asthma, whether it’s dermatology, whether it’s CNS, whether it’s GI, we’ll pursue it.”