Staff Writer

Monday marked the start of a watershed week for Idun Pharmaceuticals Inc., which closed a $22.8 million preferred stock private placement financing concurrent with the Nobel Prize ceremony, at which the chairman of its scientific advisory board is being honored.

But while the Nobel Prize ceremony lasts only a day - today - the financing may not be done.

"I think we identified some key investors that wanted to do the work to really understand the story here," President and CEO Steven Mento told BioWorld Today. "We expect this first tranche of cash to last at least two years, and right now I'm re-contacting investors that showed an interest in the financing to see whether or not we can generate interest for a second close. The goal would be to raise another $15 million."

Before the most recent financing, Idun had raised about $15 million in venture capital funding. Much of its equity financing has been through collaborations with past partners such as Novartis AG and Elan Corp. plc, as well as current partner Abbott Laboratories. Idun on Monday reported officially closing its joint venture with Elan. Mento said the sum of all of Idun's equity financing has been about $90 million since its 1993 founding.

Idun's therapeutic focus aims to control apoptosis, or programmed cell death. The San Diego-based firm said its apoptosis intellectual property, on which H. Robert Horvitz's Nobel Prize is based, provides multiple targets for new therapeutics. Horvitz, also Idun's technical founder, is being awarded a one-third share of this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Privately held Idun said it would use the funds to accelerate clinical development of its lead programs in liver disease and inflammation. The liver program entered the clinic earlier this year with a trial that studied an intravenously injected formulation of Idun's candidate in both healthy volunteers and patients with liver impairment. A Phase Ib trial with an oral formulation of the compound just got under way to study the candidate for chronic administration. The company is developing small-molecule caspase protease inhibitors to slow cell death. Specifically, Mento said the drug is designed to benefit hepatitis C patients.

"This is not an antiviral, but it's a drug that looks like it will be able to protect liver cells from the damage associated with the virus," he said. "It's primarily a safety trial, but one of the advantages we have with this drug is a pretty standard test that measures liver enzyme levels. It's a test that can tell us, with a relatively small number of patients very quickly, whether the drug is having a positive impact."

Based on such constant monitoring, the study will measure the candidate's impact on enzyme levels at various doses and intervals. Such data could aid in designing a Phase II trial, which Mento said could begin in the second half of next year.

"That's exactly what we saw in the IV study earlier this year," he added. "The drug did have a positive impact on taking abnormal liver enzyme levels into the normal range."

Funds also will be used to advance to the investigational new drug application stage by the end of next year an anti-inflammatory compound, which Mento labeled as promising based on preclinical data. While he said the program diverts from Idun's apoptosis pathway products, the inflammation target is a caspase-1 enzyme responsible for processing cytokines associated with inflammation.

Idun's cancer program is developing antagonists of the Bcl-2 family of endogenous cell death inhibitors. The development continues with Abbott Park, Ill.-based Abbott as part of a five-year collaboration, which Mento said should produce by the end of next year or early in the following year one or two candidates in clinical trials. Abbott will fund all clinical development.

Idun still could earn milestones and royalties as part of a former collaboration with Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis for a central nervous system product. Their joint research and development ended in 1999.

More recently, Idun and Elan earlier this year decided to conclude their joint venture collaboration to develop a drug to treat stroke. Mento said preclinical data appeared insufficient to justify clinical development of the candidate, adding that Idun would not move forward on its own to further develop a stroke drug, but would do so with a partner.

"But that's not the focus of our efforts," Mento said. "We believe we need to improve brain bioavailability with our set of compounds. We have an earlier-stage program that's specifically looking to develop caspase inhibitors that are designed to have better drug-like characteristics, including improved brain bioavailability. And if we're successful in that earlier-stage program, I think that opens the door not only with stroke but other chronic CNS diseases. The scientific data is very good that apoptosis plays a role in those disease; we just need to get better drugs."

Led by Irvine, Calif.-based Ventana Capital Management, the financing included additional new investors GeneChem, of Montreal; Hambrecht and Quist Capital Management LLC, of Boston; RBC Capital Partners, of Minneapolis; Bio-Veda Capital, of Redwood City, Calif.; and Sorrento Associates, of San Diego. Existing investors included Venrock Associates, of New York, and ARCH Venture Partners, of Chicago. European-based Fortis Bank served as the round's financial adviser.

Concurrent with the financing, Idun increased its board from three to seven members, appointing representatives from four investors including Elliot Parks, the managing director of life sciences at Ventana; Louis Lacasse, president of GeneChem; Daniel Omstead, the president and CEO at Hambrecht and Quist; and Dion Madsen, of RBC.

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