Washington Editor

Kemia Inc. raised $33.5 million in a Series B financing to help bankroll development of its lead candidate, a highly selective kinase inhibitor being advanced for use in rheumatoid arthritis patients.

The candidate, an allosteric kinase inhibitor, currently is the subject of animal studies, although Lew Shuster, president and CEO of the San Diego-based firm, told BioWorld Today he expects to enter human trials in early 2005.

Meanwhile, the privately held firm has a little more than $33.5 million in cash, enough to carry it well into 2006. Since its inception in May 2002, Kemia has raised $53 million. The firm closed the third tranche of its $19 million Series A financing in August.

Kemia draws its strength from proprietary chemistries that it applies to allosteric kinase inhibitors and alpha-helix interactions, Shuster said. Those target classes include many potential drug discovery targets across inflammatory diseases, cancer, HIV, diabetes and bone diseases.

What's key about the lead, unnamed RA candidate is that it's an allosteric kinase inhibitor and therefore does not primarily bind in the APT site. "Most of the early kinase drugs targeted that APT pocket, which made them potent but somewhat nonselective," Shuster said. "So the drugs would hit multiple kinases throughout the body and cause side effects and toxicity. [Therefore], most of the early kinase inhibitors that have entered the clinic have failed because of toxicity."

The allosteric binding approach allows Kemia's compounds to be more selective and, thus, have fewer side effects. Shuster said the firm is targeting orally active, small-molecule synthetic chemistries to replace today's peptide or protein drugs.

Beyond investing in its lead candidate, Shuster said Kemia will devote a certain portion of the funds to select second and third products to follow the RA drug in the pipeline.

Kemia was founded by Tamas Bartfai and Julius Rebek, both with the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, and Andy Hamilton, chair of the chemistry department at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. The company employs 31 people.

The Series B round was led by JPMorgan Partners, the private equity arm of JPMorgan Chase & Co., of New York. Rod Ferguson, a partner at JPMorgan in San Francisco, joined Kemia's board following the financing.

Other new investors were Novo A/S, of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Hamilton Apex Technology Ventures LP, of San Diego. Previous investors that participated in the round were Alta Partners, of San Francisco; Forward Ventures, of San Diego, which led the first round; Texas Pacific Group Biotechnology-TPG Ventures, of San Francisco; and Novartis BioVentures Ltd., a San Diego-based affiliate of Novartis International AG, of Basel, Switzerland.