On its website, Synta Pharmaceuticals Inc. bills itself as the newest 10-year-old pharma firm in Boston.
But with Friday's news of its $75.3 million Series B financing round, the company that bases itself in suburban Lexington, Mass., has solidified its place on the map.
"This has pretty much been a stealth company for many years," Synta CEO Safi Bahcall told BioWorld Today. "It's been a major transformation carried out in the quiet of the Boston suburbs."
The financing is the largest private round completed by a biotechnology company since the $108.5 million raised by Eyetech Pharmaceuticals Inc., of New York, in August 2001, according to BioWorld Snapshots.
Established in its present capacity in August after a buyout of the oncology and immunology business of a Japanese drug company, Synta quickly caught the attention of its most recent investors. The attraction: its substantial portfolio of therapeutic drug programs.
"We are a product-rich company in a product-desperate environment," Bahcall said. "Investors always think about upside and downside - what is the potential upside, and what are the potential risks."
The group included Synta Chairman Keith Gollust, founder of New York-based Coniston Partners; Bruce Kovner, chairman of New York-based Caxton Corp.; Robert Day, chairman of Los Angeles-based Trust Company of the West; Stanley Druckenmiller, chairman of New York-based Duquesne Capital; the Wolfensohn Family Foundation in New York; and various other undisclosed management consulting and financial institution partners.
Bahcall said privately held Synta found its investors in an effort to avoid competitive conflicts that can be associated with more traditional biotech venture capitalists, and was drawn to them for their long-term goals and financial community connections.
"They came into Synta because so many drugs with so much large market potential, all 100 percent-owned, equals a lot of upside," Bahcall said. "On the other hand, the diversity, the number of different drugs, the number of options that creates for us, or the number of shots on goal, means we are a relatively low risk. One of our investors said this might have been one of the best risk-reward profiles he has seen in years."
The company maintains full rights to 10 small-molecule programs, with clinical advancement plans for three this year. Its lead compound, STA-4783, already has entered Phase I development with one trial under way and a second planned in the next month. It enhances taxanes, and has been shown to eradicate tumors in a variety of preclinical models.
Two additional compounds are on track for investigational new drug applications this year, and Bahcall said Synta would have five clinical programs with blockbuster potential under way by the end of next year.
Prior investments since 1997 totaled more than $50 million. The latest infusion of funding, which Bahcall said would last two to three years, will be used to push Synta's later-stage programs deeper into clinical trials and accelerate its preclinical programs.
"Our top two programs will be in Phase II by the end of the year, and the third will be in Phase I," Bahcall said, labeling the solid cancer tumor compound, STA-4783, and an inflammatory compound, STA-5326, as among the top tier. He said the latter, an orally available inhibitor of interleukin-12, would be studied in Phase I/II trials for Crohn's disease. The third highly prioritized candidate, STA-5312, is a microtubule inhibitor that has shown efficacy against drug-resistant cancers in culture and in vivo. By the end of the year, Synta plans to enter the drug into Phase I studies for cancers resistant to Taxol-class and other cancer drugs.
Other pipeline candidates include STA-5928, an ion channel modulator targeting lymphocyte channels for allergy, asthma and other immune disorders, and STA-6292, an orally available TNF-alpha inhibitor.
Bahcall attributed development of the company's pipeline to its chemistry-driven approach to drug discovery. Synta said its high-throughput chemical biology platform, which uses chemical structures as molecular probes in assays designed to preserve the complexity of biological signaling, has led to the parallel identification of mechanisms of action and its small-molecule candidates.
"We are not a typical biotech company that is biology driven," Bahcall said, adding that Synta begins its research with its library of chemical compounds. "What makes us different is that we start with chemistry in a systems-biology view of what is important in the body, whereas many biotechs start with one particular gene or one particular pathway."
Synta's scientific founder, Lan Bo Chen, a Harvard Medical School professor, originally established the science behind the company in 1992. Five years later Chen and others set up Shionogi BioResearch, the U.S.-based drug discovery subsidiary of Shionogi and Co. Synta, founded by Bahcall, was established as a joint venture with the Japanese pharmaceutical firm.
In August, Shionogi's equity stake in the business was bought out, and Synta and its 58 employees hit the ground running with their arsenal of oncology and immunology drug candidates.
"We plan to develop our lead molecules through proof of concept in humans, and then evaluate partnership options at that time," Bahcall said. "Quality science and access to capital are the lifeblood of a growing pharmaceutical company."