Emerging Drug Developer: VLST

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VLST readies itself for a shift into the clinic

Some biotechs thrive best outside the glare of public attention. And VLST, a fledgling graduate of Seattle's Accelerator Corp., has been using its quiet time to line up its staff and complete preclinical work in preparation for its shift into clinical development.

"That's somewhat the beauty of being private," says CEO Martin Simonetti, a veteran of Dendreon, where he was CFO. "We've been focused on several things over the last two years.

"When we completed our Series B (a $55 million round announced in mid-2006), we took down $20 million in the first tranche and set about doing a couple of things," says Simonetti. "One was moving our lead program forward as rapidly as possible. At that point we had an early-stage discovery program. We also put a team in place and made some key hires in the last two years."

From late 2005, when Simonetti joined the company, VLST grew from seven to 42 employees. And a key co-founder, Craig Smith, a co-inventor of Enbrel, has just been replaced by a new chief scientific officer.

"We just hired Paul Carter from Seattle Genetics and Paul really fits in beautifully with our culture and technology," says Simonetti. "His experience in protein engineering and antibody development fits nicely with our platform."

Before moving to Seattle Genetics, Carter had been director of research, antibody technologies at Amgen. He played a role in the development of Herceptin and was credited as co-inventor of an anti-IL-4 receptor antibody. 

VLST's platform is still in the preclinical stage, focused on inflammatory and autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's, multiple sclerosis, lupus and diabetes. 

That's a crowded field. But VLST believes that its work in viral factors has identified a lead therapy that can modulate immune-complex mediated inflammation. And if it can make its case, the same therapeutic approach could be successful against a variety of ‘big' autoimmune disorders.

Last May VLST took its second tranche from the Series B, a $15 million infusion that will take the company "to the end of next year," or perhaps a little beyond that stage. The money has come from a lineup of investors that includes Texas Pacific Group Ventures, MPM Capital, ARCH Venture Partners, OVP and Amgen Ventures.

"I'd expect us to have some Phase I data and be focused on what indications we may move into with Phase IIa," Simonetti adds about the company's timeline.

"Now that we've got our core infrastructure in place, our focus is two-fold: moving the lead program forward to an IND in the first quarter of next year" and advancing the most promising preclinical candidates to late-stage preclinical, ready to go into the clinic, says the CEO.

Simonetti believes the company's best hope for further development lies in advancing its core expertise in-house, outsourcing some development work and eventually finding a commercialization partner to work with. The biotech has another $20 million it can tap from its Series B, with other potential revenue to be had from partnerships and possibly the capital markets, depending on how public markets are performing when the company is advanced far enough to gain attention. 

VLST still has a long way to go before it sees proof-of-concept data. But when that time arrives, the data will speak loudly about VLST's future in drug discovery.