Immune Control Inc. raised $11.3 million in its Series A financing to develop serotonin antagonists for lymphocytic cancers and autoimmune diseases, and to begin the first two clinical programs in multiple myeloma and psoriasis.
The investment round was led by BioAdvance Ventures, an early stage venture fund managed by Quaker BioVentures, of Philadelphia, along with Domain Associates, of Princeton, N.J.; NewSpring Capital, of King of Prussia, Pa.; and Anthem Capital, of Radnor, Pa. Since the company began operations in 2003, it has raised a total of $13.1 million.
Prior to the Series A round, "we raised about $1.8 million, mostly through angel funding and investments from Drexel [University in Philadelphia]," said Stephen Roth, president and CEO of Immune Control, which is headquartered in the West Conshohocken borough of Philadelphia. A portion of that early funding came from co-founder Robert Bender, of Argil Management LLC in Boston, "who really has a nose for interesting technologies."
The company's work is based on serotonin being a critical factor for the replication of activated immune cells, and that blocking the serotonin receptors could cause apoptosis in activated lymphocytes.
Serotonin receptors have been targets for years in the area of central nervous system disorders and diseases, and have been involved in the discovery of antidepressants and antipsychotics, as well as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Paxil and Prozac. But, until recently, Roth said, there seemed to be a general consensus that serotonin was active only in CNS.
One of Immune Control's scientific founders, Brad Jameson, presented work that uncovered a connection between serotonin receptors and immune cells. Jameson, a professor of biochemistry at Drexel's College of Medicine, had been working on a peptide that could interfere with the attachment of HIV to cell sites when he made the discovery, Roth said.
"This means serotonin potentially can be [targeted] in immune indications," he said, including rheumatoid arthritis, Type I diabetes, lupus and organ transplant rejection.
Immune Control, which exclusively licensed patents relating to serotonin receptors from Drexel, will be working with already-marketed antagonists that are supported by considerable safety data, as well as supporting research to developing its own antagonists. The company's focus will be on creating products that do not go into the central nervous system, or cross the blood-brain barrier, to prevent the common side effects of serotonin-targeted drugs.
Roth said the company also has agreement to test serotonin antagonists developed by an unnamed large pharmaceutical company that have not been commercialized because they don't enter the central nervous system.
Immune Control's human trials are expected to begin with a study in patients with multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects B cells. A second clinical study is expected to test a serotonin antagonist in psoriasis, a T-cell disease.
"We're hoping to have both in trials by the end of 2005," he said.
Roth said it's likely the company will seek partners for late-stage and commercialization efforts, at least for most indications.
"Multiple myeloma is a rather small indication," he said, "but for others, such as arthritis, I think it would be foolish for us to try to market those ourselves."
Immune Control already is in discussions with large pharma companies that have experience in serotonin-based products, Roth added. "I don't see any need in trying to duplicate that particular wheel."
The company has two full-time employees, while most of the work is outsourced to research organizations and part-time associates.
In connection to the financing, Peter Sears, of BioAdvance Ventures; Brian Halak, of Domain; and Zev Scherl, of NewSpring, joined the company's board.