Forbion rounds up ex-Dezima team to chase down Intercept in NASH

Forbion Capital Partners has rounded up members of the team that led Dezima to a $1.5 billion (€1.3 billion) takeover to mount an attempt to chase down Intercept Pharmaceuticals ($ICPT). The project, which is getting underway with a $15 million round and the establishment of teams on both sides of the Atlantic, is aiming to have an FXR agonist to rival Intercept's own in the clinic later this year. 

Forbion Partner Marco Boorsma

Akarna Therapeutics is the biotech behind the NASH drug. Naarden, the Netherlands-based VC shop Forbion is a relative newcomer to Akarna--the other participants in the round, New Science Ventures and Third Point Ventures, committed cash prior to the Series B--but its fingerprints are already all over the biotech and its strategy. John Ford, who helped Forbion do its due diligence on Akarna, is now heading up the biotech's operation in the United Kingdom, which is where it is incorporated and is to become the focal point of its preclinical and clinical development activities. 

Ford, who played a major role in the R&D strategy that led Forbion-backed Dezima to last year's $1.5 billion deal with Amgen ($AMGN), is to be joined at the U.K. operation by Patrick Round, Marco Boorsma, the Forbion partner in charge of the Akarna deal, told FierceBiotech. Round worked alongside Ford at Dezima to advance oral CETP inhibitor TA-8995 to midstage trials, while Boorsma oversaw Forbion's role in the company. Neither Ford nor Round was involved with Akarna before Forbion came on board. "We attracted them later on," Boorsma said.

The ex-Dezima pair are joining up with Akarna CEO and founder Raju Mohan, whose résumé played a significant role in attracting Forbion. "[He] has shown several times that he is capable of developing compounds that can make it into the clinic," Boorsma said. Notably, the list of clinical-stage drugs with which Mohan was involved early on include a FXR agonist, the same type of therapy that is now in development at Akarna. Mohan is trying to use this experience to design a better FXR agonist than Intercept's OCA, which is seen by Boorsma as an imperfect drug aimed at the right target.

"FXR is a more or less clinically-validated target," he said. The Forbion partner's confidence in FXR stems from clinical trial data generated by Intercept, as does his conviction that Akarna can come from behind to capture the NASH market. "[Intercept has] some issues with itching ... and LDL increases," he added. "Therefore, we think there is a place for a better, best-in-class FXR agonist." Intercept has tried to downplay the significance of the LDL increases, noting that levels return to normal following treatment with statins.

Boorsma sees an opportunity for a FXR agonist that has improved tolerability, though. And, with Mohan's skill set, he thinks Akarna has a shot at delivering such a drug. "His chemistry knowledge was pretty important for us," Boorsma said.

The process of finding out whether chemistry knowledge translates into clinical success is set to start around the turn of the year. A Phase I trial in healthy volunteers is first up, followed by single and multiple-ascending dose studies. A cohort of NASH patients is to be included in a bid to generate clinical proof-of-concept data. The $15 million is intended to take Akarna up to this point.

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