Start-up Excaliard Pharmaceuticals Inc. raised $15.5 million in a Series A financing round and signed a deal with Isis Pharmaceuticals Inc. for the development of antisense drugs to treat fibrotic diseases.

The Series A round was co-led by new investors Alta Partners and ProQuest Investments, along with existing seed investor RiverVest Venture Partners. Nicholas Dean, Excaliard's co-founder and chief scientific officer, said the money should last three to four years.

Encinitas, Calif.-based Excaliard was founded about a year ago by Dean and RiverVest managing director J. Gordon Foulkes. The company's name reflects its focus on developing local treatments for fibrotic diseases, including scarring. The word "Excaliard" is an amalgamation of references to the magical sword Excalibur and its silver scabbard, which, according to Arthurian legend, would protect their bearer from injury.

Dean, who previously worked as vice president of oncology and functional genomics at Isis, told BioWorld Today that he founded Excaliard with the Isis program in mind.

That program is centered on antisense oligonucleotides targeting an undisclosed gene associated with fibrosis. Dean said the lead candidate is in late preclinical development and is slated to begin investigational new drug application-enabling toxicology studies in three to six months.

To gain access to the gene target, Excaliard paid Isis a $1 million cash license fee and an undisclosed amount of equity. According to Kate Corcoran, vice president of corporate development at Carlsbad, Calif.-based Isis, the deal also provides Excaliard with the opportunity to evaluate "any number of additional targets" associated with fibrosis and negotiate additional licenses in the future, as needed.

Excaliard also will utilize Isis's second-generation antisense technology to develop drug candidates and will pay Isis milestones and royalties accordingly. Dean declined to specify which fibrotic diseases Excaliard will pursue.

For Isis, the Excaliard deal is one of many recent business development moves. Corcoran said the company's strategy involves partnering noncore programs early on while holding onto core programs in cardiovascular and metabolic disease through Phase II proof-of-concept studies.

Last month, Isis partnered a noncore asthma program with Altair Therapeutics Inc., a start-up that was founded specifically to develop Isis's antisense technology for respiratory applications. (See BioWorld Today, Oct. 17, 2007.)

Other noncore deals have included licensing ocular disease targets to iCo Therapeutics Inc., cancer targets to OncoGenex Technologies Inc. and Eli Lilly and Co., antibiotic targets to Achaogen, inflammation targets to Atlantic Healthcare, cytomegalovirus (CMV) targets to Novartis AG, hepatitis C virus targets to Merck & Co. Inc. and HIV targets to ImQuest Pharmaceuticals Inc., just to name a few.

Corcoran said that since Isis "can target any gene," the partnerships it has signed thus far are "just the tip of the iceberg." The company plans to continue its strategy to "broadly develop antisense drugs" internally and through partnerships, she added.

Shares of Isis (NASDAQ:ISIS) rose 50 cents to close at $17.56 on Tuesday.

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