BioWorld International Correspondent

U3 Pharma AG raised €27 million (US$34.7 million) to accelerate development of its pipeline of targeted therapies, designed to modulate signal transduction pathways in cancer.

The company, which now has raised about €42 million since its foundation in 2001, aims to move its lead product, U-1287, a human antibody that targets a membrane-bound receptor tyrosine kinase, into clinical development within the next 12 months, Chief Business Officer Edward Stuart said. A second product, a human antibody that targets the ligand of a membrane-bound receptor tyrosine kinase, is due to follow about six months later.

The two molecules, which have potential in several oncology indications, including breast, lung and colorectal, are the subject of a co-development and co-commercialization agreement with Abgenix Inc., now part of Amgen Inc., of Thousand Oaks, Calif. U3 Pharma, of Munich, Germany, has retained 50 percent of worldwide rights.

The rest of U3 Pharma's portfolio of preclinical and research-stage projects are unlicensed. The company is building a pipeline that could offer options for combination therapy. "This is clearly where the future of oncology treatment is going to go," Stuart said. It also could offer a ready-made pipeline for a big pharma player entering oncology. "The plan in the near term is to get into an alliance with a pharma partner. That's clearly an aim for us this year," he said.

The company plans to focus its resources on its own drugs, which have their origins in the lab of founder Axel Ullrich, director of the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, one of Germany's best-known biotechnology pioneers. Ullrich is associated with the development of the cancer therapies Herceptin (trastuzumab) and Sutent (sunitinib), marketed by Genentech Inc., of South San Francisco, and New York-based Pfizer Inc., respectively.

"We're not particularly interested in getting access to one compound that's a bit further down the chain," Stuart said. "We're avoiding the specialty pharma route. I think too many biotechnology companies have been forced to go into specialty pharma."

While that may deliver near-term revenue to satisfy investors, he said, it sacrifices the long-term potential and the particular characteristics of biotechnology. "I think it's important really to make a distinction between clinical-stage companies and companies with interesting science."

U3's development strategy is based on a translational medicine approach to discovery. Ullrich's research group works with defined patient groups to identify novel cancer targets and to unravel the associated signal transduction pathways. That means that projects entering preclinical development typically are enriched by a deep biological understanding, as well as by tools, such as biomarkers, to guide development. Moreover, the target patient population already has been identified.

"We have a better chance of success in development, and we have a clear path to approval, as well," Stuart said.

Life Sciences Partners, of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, led the investment round. Existing investors Alta Partners, Atlas Venture, E. de Rothschild Investment Partners, and Bio*One Capital also participated.

U3 also named former board member Karsten Henco its new CEO. Henco is co-founder and previously was CEO of Evotec AG, of Hamburg, Germany, and Qiagen NV, of Venlo, the Netherlands.

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