With $140M in backing and partnership with AbbVie, Capsida ready to make its gene therapy play

DNA helix forming inside a test tube
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As an endocrinologist, Bob Cuddihy, M.D., felt stymied with the lack of advances in his field.

“You’re often seeing kids coming into the ER with inborn errors in metabolism, in dire straits,” Cuddihy said. “You see the devastation that it has on their lives and the lives of their family. I often felt frustrated as a physician that I didn’t have the tools at my disposal to treat all of these genetic conditions.”

As the CEO of a new, ambitious biotech in Southern California, Cuddihy hopes to provide those tools to his brethren.

With a stealth launch comes Capsida Biotherapeutics Inc., though there’s nothing under-the-radar about its hefty financing. Versant Ventures and Westlake Village BioPartners are backing the startup with a $50 million series A commitment, while strategic partner AbbVie is kicking in $90 million to help Capsida develop targeted gene therapies in serious neurodegenerative diseases.

After more than a decade as a physician and professor, with stops including the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical, Cuddihy spent another decade in the corporate world, serving at Sanofi, Johnson & Johnson and most recently at Amgen.

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When the opportunity arose to pilot Capsida, it wasn’t a major geographic move, just seven miles down the Ventura Highway from Amgen headquarters, but it was a significant professional leap of faith.    

Helping convince Cuddihy to make the jump was Beth Seidenberg, M.D., founder of Westlake and a member of Capsida’s board.

“When I had this conversation with Beth, it seemed like everything was coming together, great VCs (equity financing), solid funding, unbelievable team,” Cuddihy said.

Capsida traces its roots to co-founder Viviana Gradinaru, Ph.D., a renowned neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, who developed the technology that sets the company apart.

Gradinaru’s groundbreaking research yielded an engineering platform that generates capsids optimized to target specific tissue types and limits transduction of tissues and cell types that are not relevant to the target disease.

With the more efficient targeting facilitated by this approach, the disease can be neutralized with less medicine, enhancing its safety.

“We felt it was a right-time, right-place kind of capability,” said Clare Ozawa, Ph.D., managing director at Versant and a Capsida board member. “It’s a platform to be able to identify and create new capsids that have the ability for tropism and higher efficiency, being able to deliver at a much higher rate per cell than the first-generation vectors.”

Versant and Westlake were not alone in their pursuit of Gradinaru. Three other pharmaceutical companies and several venture groups wanted her technology. It was Gradinaru who brought Ozawa and Seidenberg together. The young trio of powerful women set Capsida apart.

Ozawa believes they’ve also helped Capsida attract a diverse and experienced pool of talented scientists. The company of approximately 50 expects to double its ranks by the end of the year.

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Seidenberg believes Capsida is positioned to succeed for reasons other than the technology edge provided by Gradinaru. She credited the firm’s insights on how to develop cargo (medicine) and its advanced manufacturing platform.

“AbbVie saw the full differentiation of this company and that’s what led to the deal we’re talking about today,” Seidenberg said.

For Cuddihy, it’s a long way from working the emergency room.

“I really think we’re hitting an inflection point, not only in the field of gene therapy but medicine in general,” he said. “I think 10 years ago, gene therapy wasn’t ready. Today, with the advances that we and others are making, I really think we’re coming into a golden age of gene therapies that will strike a whole bunch of human suffering and diseases that heretofore we couldn’t target.”