Swiss antibody firm NovImmune SA closed a Series B round, raising CHF58 million (US$46 million) to support ongoing development of drug candidates against immune-related disorders.

The company, which signed a deal last year with Serono SA for its two lead programs, expects to use the funding to advance at least two additional products into the clinic, starting with NI-0801, a fully human antibody targeting pathogenic cell migration that is in preclinical development and has started GMP manufacturing work. If all proceeds as planned, NI-0801 should reach the clinic sometime in 2008, said Jack Barbut, CEO of Geneva-based NovImmune.

Following that product, the company expects to start preclinical work on another antibody next year.

"We're on target to have one new compound going into the clinic" on an annual basis, Barbut told BioWorld Today, adding that the Series B funding should provide enough money "to take us a minimum of 24 months to 36 months out."

The financing was led by BZ Bank, of Zurich, Switzerland, on behalf of several of its clients. BZ Bank is part of Swiss financier Martin Ebner's BZ Group Holdings. New investor Pictet Private Equity Investors SA, of Geneva, and existing investors, including private Swiss bank Lombard Odier Darier Hentsch; Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis Venture Fund; and Zurich, Switzerland-based Aravis Venture, also participated in the round.

NovImmune, founded in 1998, previously pulled in CHF15 million in a Series A round in 2000, and has added CHF22.8 million through equity and milestone payments associated with collaborations.

Its largest deal is with Serono, also of Geneva. The companies agreed in 2005 to collaborate on NovImmune's lead products, NI-0401 and NI-0501, with Serono retaining an option to license exclusive, worldwide rights after Phase IIa. Terms included a $5 million license fee, a CHF7.5 million equity investment and a loan of up to CHF7.5 million that could be convertible into NovImmune shares. NovImmune also would be entitled to up to $105 million in milestones, plus royalties. (See BioWorld Today, May 18, 2005.)

Barbut said the company expects Phase IIa data on NI-0401 in Crohn's disease "toward the end of 2007," and, pending those results, likely would pursue that antibody, which targets CD3, in additional indications, such as acute renal transplantation, and possibly diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. "Like most immunology compounds," he said, "you'll find that if it works in one indication, it will work across several others."

Though other firms are investigating anti-CD antibodies in immunological conditions - Rockville, Md.-based Macrogenics Inc. is expected to start a pivotal trial later this year with MGA301 in Type I diabetes, and Cambridge, Mass.-based TolerRx Inc. is in Phase I and Phase II testing with TRX4 in Type I diabetes and psoriasis - NovImmune's compound "is the first fully human" antibody, Barbut said.

Its mechanism suggests lower immunogenicity, "one of the key elements for chronic indications," he said, and it might induce a long-term immune tolerance in patients, which would allow the control of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases over an extended period of time.

NI-0501 is expected to reach the clinic in the first half of 2007. That product is a fully human anti-interferon-gamma monoclonal antibody that could target diseases such as lupus, Crohn's disease and vasculitis.

NovImmune intends to seek partnerships for other products, such as NI-0801, emerging from its drug discovery efforts, though the company's goal is to progress them through Phase IIb first.

On the chance that "we find an indication that's narrow enough" to be handled by a small sales force, Barbut said, the company likely would consider going to the market on its own.

"But that's in the future," he said. "For the moment, we're focused on product development and keeping as much as possible in-house until Phase IIb."

In other financings news:

• AaiPharma Inc., of Wilmington, N.C., raised $30 million through a rights offering to existing shareholders and option holders, with proceeds expected to accelerate and enhance the development and growth of the company's core service business. A portion of the funds will be used to support the acquisition of Cvitkovic & Associés Consultants SA, with the remainder aimed at providing additional liquidity for working capital, future acquisitions and joint ventures, capital expenditures and general corporate purposes.

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