Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals' roots go back to Andrew Myers' laboratory at Harvard, where the chemist--who chairs the department of chemistry and chemical biology--developed a synthetic process for creating tetracycline antibiotics. By altering the chemical composition of the molecules, Myers was able to change their therapeutic potential--creating an engine for novel drug discovery work.
The implications attracted the attention of Mediphase Venture Partners, which decided to create a platform company with the intellectual property it licensed from Harvard. The venture capital group teamed up with Fidelity Biosciences, Flagship Ventures, Skyline Ventures and CMEA Ventures on a $25 million Series A in late 2006. And just days ago the Watertown, MA-based company gained $15 million in the second tranche of that round.
Over the past 18 months "we've produced over 400 different analogs, and the majority are a novel structure you can only do with a synthetic approach," says Guy Macdonald, who was appointed CEO at the beginning of this year. "We're making structures that have never existed before."
Over the next nine to 12 months, Tetraphase plans to do IND-enabling toxicity studies. And McDonald says that the latest infusion of capital is enough to get through a Phase I trial on a single program. But the biotech also wants to advance another program toward an early-stage trial, "and that could change the timeline."
Initially, Tetraphase will pursue a familiar path among the small biotechs pursuing antibiotic programs, focusing on new therapies to fight drug-resistant infections. But along the way, Tetraphase will be working to determine if these novel structures could be used to target ailments outside the infectious disease arena. The biotech feels that its technology could play an important role in inflammation and cancer, where tetracycline-class therapeutics have demonstrated potential in anti-angiogenesis.
"Over the last 10 years you've seen big pharma moving out of the drug discovery path in infectious disease," says Mcdonald. "More recently, though, a large number of biotech companies have been working in antibiotic development." And big pharma companies like Novartis and Forest Laboratories have been stepping back in, licensing programs once they get past Phase I or Phase II.
At this stage of the game, Tetraphase is focused primarily on chemistry work. Twenty out of 25 employees at the company are chemists. And CRO chemists in China are supplementing the work as well, part of a broad strategy to outsource a significant amount of the work in order to keep the biotech's head count low.
Mcdonald spent most of his career at Merck--22 years--before moving on to Idenix. And after helping build that company to 300 workers as executive vice president and COO, setbacks on the chemistry side of the business persuaded him to refocus his career and move on.
Now he has a three-year game plan with several key milestones to hit: Bring Tetraphase's first program to the clinic, advance a second through toxicology studies and explore novel uses of the technology outside of infectious diseases.
"I really want to demonstrate that we have a platform here and that we're not a one tetracycline antibiotic company," says the CEO. "Then we can demonstrate a high level of value in the platform with three INDs in less than 5 years."
After that the startup can get a better idea of the best way to go forward, comparing the advantages of a partnering strategy while growing the company and considering the potential of an IPO or a potential acquisition.
But the company's ultimate fate lies past Mcdonald's three-year horizon. For now, it's one step at a time.