Days after its $63M boost, Imara gains former Pfizer rare disease executive as CMO

Board game with pieces on it
The former Pfizer rare disease lead will oversee its work on sickle cell anemia. (Zajcsik / PD)

Sickle cell disease biotech Imara has nabbed Pfizer’s clinical rare disease lead Willem H. Scheele, M.D., as its new chief medical officer.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company has had a good month, getting off a $63 million crossover round to advance its sickle cell disease drug, currently in a phase 2a trial.

The experimental med IMR-687, a phosphodiesterase-9 inhibitor, was picked up from Lundbeck and will be pushed deeper into the clinic.

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Scheele will now oversee that program, as well as “manage the strategy, direction, and execution of the company’s overall clinical drug development efforts,” according to the biotech.

This is a big get for the small biotech, given that Scheele has come out of Big Pharma Pfizer, where he was the U.S. giant’s executive director, clinician group lead of its Rare Diseases unit. His tenure stretches back to his time at Wyeth, which was bought out by Pfizer a decade ago.

He replaces interim CMO Shi Yin Foo, M.D., of Cydan, the orphan drug accelerator that launched Imara back in 2016 with $31 million in series A funding and its Lundbeck med.

IMR-687 is designed to block PDE9 activity, thereby increasing cGMP and fetal globin while reducing the sickling and adhesion of red and white blood cells, respectively. These effects could reduce the blockage of blood vessels in sickle cell patients.

Hydroxyurea, an approved medicine, has similar effects on sickle cell disease but also causes severe side effects, including bone marrow suppression and infertility. By proposing a way to improve on the risk-benefit profile of hydroxyurea, Imara attracted investment from backers including New Enterprise Associates and Pfizer Venture Investments to support its advance into clinical trials.

To date, Imara has taken IMR-687 through a study in healthy volunteers and into an ongoing phase 2 that is looking at its safety, pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics in 54 adults with sickle cell anemia.

Imara is closing in on the completion of the phase 2a, beyond which it plans to move into later-stage development. In parallel, Imara is gearing up to test the effect of IMR-687 on thalassemia—another blood disease caused by errors in the genes that code for hemoglobin—and expand its pipeline beyond the lead molecule. 

Other companies are developing advanced therapies to treat the diseases targeted by Imara. Vertex and CRISPR Therapeutics have a gene-edited sickle cell therapy in early-phase development, while Bluebird Bio and Sangamo Therapeutics are applying their own genetic technologies to the disease.

Rahul D. Ballal, Ph.D., CEO of Imara, said: “[Scheeler’s] background and broad experience in leading rigorous clinical development for rare diseases like Gaucher disease and transthyretin amyloid cardiomyopathy at leading pharmaceutical companies will be a tremendous asset. We would also like to extend our gratitude to Shi Yin for her invaluable leadership and guidance since our inception.”

The new CMO added: “I believe Imara’s lead compound IMR-687 has real potential to both reduce the red blood cell sickling and blockage of blood vessels that are the underlying causes of the sickle cell disease pathology.

“Imara is poised for success and I’m confident through our shared vision and my deep bench of experience in clinical development, we will be able to make great strides in drug development for patients with sickle cell disease and also advance novel programs that enhance fetal hemoglobin, a protein critical in transporting oxygen, for other hemoglobinopathies.”