West Coast Editor

Spaltudaq Corp.'s tumor-specific monoclonal antibody approach pulled down $29 million in a Series B financing, giving the firm enough cash to get "at least one [drug] into the clinic," probably in breast cancer, said David Fanning, president and CEO.

The funds on hand "could take us out two and a half to three years, if not longer," he added, and the Seattle-based firm is looking for partners in the U.S., Europe and Japan.

Spaltudaq's technology, I-STAR (In-Situ Therapeutic Antibody Rescue), screens and rescues monoclonal antibody drug candidates directly from live human B-lymphocyte cultures - not a personalized therapy approach, but one that starts with a person who may have a universally relevant antibody.

"It's actually the reverse of personalized therapy, but it uses the same philosophy that the therapeutic answer may well lie within a given individual," Fanning said.

"[I-STAR] was initially looking at B-cells that were present in tumors, and were in the process of directing antibodies against the tumor, but we also can implement the technology against known targets," he said. "We think there's interest in both, but by different types of customers."

Longtime antibody players likely would appreciate the first strategy, while certain pharma firms might feel more comfortable with the second. In the first scenario, Spaltudaq would establish discovery collaborations, whereas the second would be "arm's-length out-licensing," Fanning said.

"There's a consensus as to what [partners] are looking for - in vivo animal proof of concept, and an antibody on the doorstep of Phase I," he added.

Fanning was chief operating officer at Seattle-based Corixa Corp., founded by Steven Gillis, managing director of ARCH Venture Partners, a Spaltudaq investor. Gillis is chairman of Spaltudaq's board. GlaxoSmithKline plc, of London, took over Corixa for $300 million in 2005. (See BioWorld Today, May 3, 2005.)

The third start-up of the biotech investment firm Accelerator Corp., Spaltudaq was founded in November 2004 and launched the following January by scientist Johnny Stine, whose Snohomish Indian descent led him to the firm's unusual name. Derived from the Lushootseed dialect of the Puget Sound Salish Nation, the name means "spirit canoe ceremony," in which a native healer recovers the souls of people stricken with mortal illness.

Stine is chief scientific officer of the firm, which is taking aim at infectious disease as well as cancer. His background includes antibody work at Abgenix Inc., of Fremont, Calif., (since acquired by Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Amgen Inc.) as well as ICOS Corp., of Seattle (bought by Eli Lilly & Co., of Indianapolis) and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"The vision of looking at human tissue as the source of drug candidates and then reducing that to practice in cancer is Johnny's idea," Fanning said, noting that Stine has been particularly passionate about the methodology since working at St. Jude.

"On very limited funds, he's pushed it quite far," Fanning said. Spaltudaq officials "haven't seen many companies" that try an approach like I-STAR, he added. "Most [firms] that have tried to look at human lymphocytes as the source for antibodies have focused on human hybridoma, and that's a very inefficient approach, since human B-cells don't cooperate in the way that mouse cells do."

I-STAR is fast because it starts with a human repertoire and targets patient samples likely to be enriched for an antibody of interest, and those factors could give Spaltudaq an edge over other antibody firms, Fanning said.

Spaltudaq has eight scientists on board, and "we'll probably have between 20 and 30 employees in the next 12 to 18 months," he said. "We may not get above 60 to 70 employees, since a lot of the technology is highly automated."

The latest financing was co-led by ARCH, Canaan Partners and Healthcare Ventures. Amgen Ventures, MPM Capital and Alexandria Equities LLC also participated.