As it leverages the evolutionary process of viral proteins, creating drugs for anti-inflammatory diseases, Viron Therapeutics Inc. closed a $20 million Series A financing.
Founded in 1997 as a spinout of Canada's Robarts Research Institute, the company has previously raised up to C$15 million (US$13.5 million) through bridge and mezzanine financings, but it recapitalized a year and a half ago to make itself more inviting to investors.
The $20 million round was oversubscribed and, when added to an additional investment of about $4.5 million coming from the Canadian government through its Technology Partnerships Canada program, brings the total amount now flowing into Viron to $24.5 million.
Net proceeds will help London, Ontario-based Viron complete a Phase II trial of its lead drug, advance other compounds into clinical development and continue the optimization of the company's manufacturing process, said its president and CEO, Neil Warma. "The investment will be used to finance the company through the end of 2008," he told BioWorld Today, "and it will allow us to meet a number of clinical and development milestones."
The company's technology is based on work by its founding scientists, Grant McFadden and Alexandra Lucas, who have expertise in viral pathogenesis and interventional cardiology. McFadden discovered that a number of viral proteins had abilities to inhibit inflammation and inflammatory cells, whereas Lucas designed some gold standards of animal models. When they brought their research together, they knew they were on to something. "Lo and behold, not only was there activity and response, but an extremely potent response at very low doses," Warma said.
The advantage of the technology is not only its potency, but also its efficiency in modulating immune pathways. Viron's drug candidates often bind to more than one target, and they bind with much higher affinity than do products produced with conventional means. The doses are 1,000 times lower than other products and are measured as micrograms per kilogram, as opposed to milligrams per kilogram, which Warma hopes will translate to a more favorable safety profile.
"The safety of these compounds, or certainly the lead, is fantastic," Warma said. "We saw very little in the animal models. We saw nothing in the Phase I, so we're confident that the safety profile moving forward will be quite good."
A Phase II trial of the lead product, VT-111, is enrolling patients with acute coronary syndromes (ACS) that are undergoing intervention. Phase I data have shown the compound to be safe and well tolerated in healthy volunteers, and preclinical results indicated VT-111 has efficacy in reducing and stabilizing atherosclerotic plaque.
Warma said he expects to have Phase II data available by the second or third quarter of 2007. At that point, the company could move into a larger Phase II trial or perhaps a Phase II/III study. Viron also plans to move into the clinic shortly with VT-111 as a potential treatment for the chronic rejection of transplantation. The ACS indication includes several million patients, Warma said, and a therapy to treat the disease could become a billion-dollar product. While marketed drugs treat the symptoms of ACS, VT-111's potential may be of great interest because "there's nothing that really directly prevents the causative effect, which is the underlying inflammatory response," he said.
The transplantation market is much smaller, but VT-111 might have a corner on it considering there is nothing available to treat chronic rejection. All marketed products target acute rejection. Behind VT-111, Viron has six compounds in preclinical development and a number of others in the early discovery phase. Its financing is expected to help move a few more candidates into the clinic, while the company continues "to keep the conveyor belt" of molecules moving, Warma said.
Viron is talking with a number of companies about partnering VT-111, as well as some preclinical candidates. It would consider advancing and commercializing a product on its own in certain indications, but "obviously, as a small company, we can't possibly advance all compounds at once," Warma said. "We need to allocate resources accordingly. This is too much for us to do alone."
Viron, which has about 20 employees, has formed collaborations with the University of Amsterdam for inflammatory bowel disease products, and with the University of Florida at Gainesville focused on lupus. The company expects to run a number of its compounds through models to find products to pursue with the collaborations. It also hopes to establish a U.S. presence through the Florida alliance.
While other companies now are focusing on viral proteins, Viron may have been the first to do work in the field.
"We have a good head start on a number of these companies that are shifting over to that area now," Warma said.
Canadian Medical Discoveries Fund, of Toronto, led the Series A round, which included participation from new investors Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Amgen Ventures; Montreal-based BDC Venture Capital; Vancouver, British Columbia-based GrowthWorks Capital; and previous investors Novartis Pharma AG, of Basel, Switzerland, and Trudell Medical Ltd., of London, Ontario.