With plans to advance its preclinical compounds and to optimize its platform technology, Morphotek Inc. raised $26 million in a Series C financing.

It is the largest financing ever for the Exton, Pa.-based company, which was founded in May 2000 and has raised a total of $38 million in its three rounds.

"The financing is significant for us. It really allows us to move to the next stage of value creation, transitioning Morphotek from a technology platform company to a technology platform/product company," said Nicholas Nicolaides, president, CEO and co-founder of the company.

Funds raised will be used to advance Morphotek's therapeutic antibodies through preclinical testing. The company's lead monoclonal antibody, MORAb-003, specifically targets cell-surface glycoprotein tumor cells bearing a molecule that is present on more than 90 percent of all ovarian tumors and in a number of other cancer types. Morphotek plans to file an investigational new drug application for MORAb-003 later this year, with plans to dose its first patients in a clinical trial in the first quarter of 2005.

"That's really the highest priority," Nicolaides told BioWorld Today. "The second priority is to continue to optimize our new antibody discovery platform technology, the human Morphodoma technology."

The Morphodoma technology evolves lead mammalian cell lines to generate subclones in order to make efficacious protein products or genetically enhanced cells showing high titers of protein for scaleable manufacturing, the company said.

"It's really the foundation of what this company is founded on," Nicolaides said. "It's a broad technology that allows us to enhance evolution in vivo."

The company received an undisclosed milestone payment in December from Abgenix Inc., of Fremont, Calif., after the Morphodoma technology helped in the development of an antibody-producing cell line.

In addition to the agreement with Abgenix, Morphotek has agreements with Baxter Healthcare Corp., of Deerfield, Ill.; Centocor Inc., of Malvern, Pa.; Novo Nordisk A/S, of Bagsvaerd, Denmark; and Wyeth, of Madison, N.J., for the use of the technology.

Not only is the company using it to optimize leads for its corporate partners, but also it is obtaining unoptimized antibodies and optimizing them for in-house development.

"We've been able to bring in lead molecules through a pretty nice network of collaborations with academic institutions," Nicolaides said.

Morphotek obtained MORAb-003 as part of an agreement with the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.

Aside from the lead product, the company is developing and validating additional antibodies for cancer and inflammation and neovascular diseases. It also has developed a method for in vitro immunization for infectious diseases and toxins.

Forward Ventures, of San Diego, led the Series C financing, which included investments by new investors S.R. One Ltd., of West Conshohocken, Pa.; Morgenthaler Ventures, of Menlo Park, Calif.; Rock Maple Ventures, of Boston; China Development Industrial Bank, of Taipei, Taiwan; and DSM Venturing, of Heerlen, the Netherlands. Existing investors Flagship Ventures, of Cambridge, Mass.; Burrill & Co., of San Francisco; CB Health Ventures, of Boston; and Trieste Capital, of Japan, also participated, as well as a number of Series A private investors.

"We're fortunate to be able to bring in such a quality group of investors," Nicolaides said. "We believe that with their financial support and guidance, we can hit value creation milestones over the next two years."

As part of the financing, three new directors will join the board: Ivor Royston, of Forward Ventures; Ralph Christoffersen, of Morgenthaler Ventures; and Maxine Gowen, of S.R. One.