Coda bumps up series A to $34M, lays out first 2 gene therapy programs

Coda Biotherapeutics launched in September last year with $19 million and a mission to develop gene therapies that can be switched on and off and tuned up and down. Now, the biotech is adding another $15 million to the bank and detailing its first two programs: chronic neuropathic pain and focal epilepsy. 

Three of its original series A backers—Versant Ventures, MPM Capital and Astellas Venture Management—returned for round two. The new funding will push Coda’s lead programs toward the clinic—potentially sometime in 2021, CEO Michael Narachi told FierceBiotech—and bankroll its drug discovery efforts. 

Unlike other gene therapies that replace a defective gene with a healthy one, Coda’s chemogenetic platform uses gene therapy to get cells to produce “switch” proteins that lie dormant within cells until a small-molecule drug is delivered. Delivered by viral vector, the genes code for receptors called ion channels, which open up when certain ligands bind to them. They are engineered to respond to specific drugs, so doses are low, which can limit the off-target effects of the drug on other tissues. 

This two-step treatment could have advantages other than being tunable and reversible. Instead of charging a steep price upfront for a one-time gene therapy that might not work, Narachi envisions dividing that price into two installments: one for the gene therapy and a second for the oral drug—but only if the drug works for that patient. 

RELATED: Coda Biotherapeutics launches with $19M to build 'tunable' gene therapy

“We think that will allow for broader and faster adoption and penetration because the sticker shock won’t be as big,” he said. 

At launch, Coda was a virtual outfit with a team of around 10 staffers who were mostly focused on research in South San Francisco. Since then, the company has grown to 23 people and has moved out of its incubator space at JLABS. 

“Now we have a portfolio of receptor-ligand pairs that we engineered with very similar specifications, where the receptors are quiescent when we put them in—not sensitive to synthetic ligands any longer based on the engineering  we’ve done, but they’re all highly sensitive to their own ligand pairs,” Narachi said. 

This portfolio includes pairs that are better for disorders of the central nervous system and pairs that are better for the peripheral nervous system—the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord, Narachi said. Coda has tested the receptor-ligand pairs in nerves taken from mammalian tissue and is working to select the best prospects to translate into IND-enabling studies. 

As for its lead programs, Coda was already developing engineered neurotransmitter receptors activated by oral drugs to calm down hyperexcitable neurons responsible for chronic neuropathic pain. The approach for focal epilepsy is similar, as there is a focus of hyperexcitable neurons in one side of the brain that leads to uncontrollable seizures. 

Focal epilepsy is treated with anti-seizure medication, but it doesn’t work for all patients. Because focal epilepsy stems from a single area in the brain, nonresponsive patients may undergo surgery to remove part of the brain. 

“You can imagine the negative consequences of getting rid of a high-functioning center of the brain,” Narachi said. 

Coda’s gene therapy would be injected into the epileptic focus in the brain. Then, patients would take a pill that would—the hope is—render them relatively seizure-free. 

The company believes its platform can be applied in “almost any therapeutic area or disease condition.” It plans to hold on to its two lead programs but is looking for partners, too. 

“We are in exploratory steps with several interested parties on the pharma collaboration side. The platform has such promise and breadth, there is no way we can do it all, or expect to do it all,” Narachi said. “We think we could independently capitalize neuropathic pain and focal epilepsy, but we’re open to partnering on one of those as well.”