A week after in-licensing two clinical stage anti-inflammatory compounds from Eli Lilly and Co., specialty pharma firm Anthera Pharmaceuticals Inc. closed its first institutional financing round of $36 million.

The company previously raised about $1.5 million in seed funding in 2005, which was used to bring in its first pipeline products. Earlier this month, Anthera completed that licensing agreement, gaining worldwide rights, except for Japan, to a secretory phospholipase program from Indianapolis-based Lilly and Osaka, Japan-based Shionogi & Co. Ltd. Terms were not disclosed.

"Our business model is to develop compounds that have not been progressed because of the size of the market they address or because of some of the risks involved," said Paul Truex, president and CEO of the San Francisco-based company.

Anthera is focused on inflammation, an area "that is definitely evolving" and "becoming more recognized as the underlying pathology behind some diseases," he said.

Truex previously co-founded Peninsula Pharmaceuticals Inc., which also employed an in-licensing approach. Peninsula, of Alameda, Calif., was acquired by a unit of New Brunswick, N.J.-based Johnson & Johnson in April 2005 for $245 million. (See BioWorld Today, April 20, 2005.)

Prior to Peninsula, Truex had done some work at Lilly and was familiar with its secretory phospholipase A2 (sPLA2) compounds, which are designed to inhibit up-regulation of the sPLA2 enzyme before it can lead to an inflammatory response. Though Lilly and Shionogi had advanced an intravenous sPLA2 inhibitor, now known as A-001, into clinical development for organ failure in sepsis, the partners canceled the program after yielding little success.

"That's a very difficult patient population," Truex said of the sepsis indication. "But they developed it well into Phase II, and we were interested in picking it up and taking it in a different direction."

Anthera hopes to start a Phase II study of A-001 before the end of the year in hospitalized sickle cell disease patients at risk for developing acute chest syndrome, the most common cause of death for sickle cell patients. Studies have shown that patients with acute chest syndrome have high levels of sPLA2 that trigger an inflammatory cascade in the lungs during a vaso-occlusive crisis.

"By inhibiting that enzyme and stopping that cascade, you can prevent that serious lung complication," Truex told BioWorld Today. "The idea is to inhibit that enzyme at the earliest stages of its effect, which is in arachidonic cascade of inflammation, and truncate that inflammation to prevent harm."

Because A-001 would be for an orphan indication, the company might look at taking it the market on its own, with a small sales force. However, a commercial partner likely would be needed to market an oral sPLA2 inhibitor, which would "be for a larger disease area," Truex said.

SPLA2 is implicated in a number of diseases, including psoriasis, arthritis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cardiovascular disease. Anthera intends to announce an initial indication for A-002 later this year.

The venture capital round is expected to fund the Phase II programs for both A-001 and A-002 and "should get us well through 2008," Truex said, adding that lead investors VantagePoint Venture Partners, of San Bruno, Calif., and Sofinnova Ventures, of San Francisco, "really wanted to make sure we had enough runway to get there."

Other investors included Pappas Ventures, of Durham, N.C.; Mitsubishi International Corp., of New York; Sears Capital Management, of Los Altos, Calif.; and SIM Equity. As part of the licensing agreement, Lilly and Shionogi received equity from Anthera.

Annette Bianchi, of VantagePoint, and Jim Healy, of Sofinnova, were named to the company's board.

Anthera, which has 10 employees, expects to grow to between 15 and 20 by the end of 2006.

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