Ex-Dezima executives scoop €25M for midphase NASH trial

The North Sea, from which the pan-European biotech takes its name, and surrounding countries.

NorthSea Therapeutics has raised €25 million ($29 million) to put a NASH drug through phase 2b. The round reunites some of the executives and investors who helped Dezima and NASH startup Akarna to takeovers by Amgen and Allergan, respectively.

Rob de Ree, the former CEO of Dezima, has come on board as CEO of the newly established NorthSea. De Ree is joined by Patrick Round, who had a hand in the stories of Dezima and Akarna. Round has taken up the CMO post at NorthSea.

The executives received money from a familiar-looking syndicate of VCs led by Forbion and BGV with support from New Science Ventures. All three groups backed Dezima. Forbion and New Science also put money into Akarna. Novo Seeds rounds out the syndicate.

The executives and investors have been drawn together again by the prospect of taking a shortcut to late-phase NASH trials by repositioning a structurally engineered fatty acid originally developed to treat hypertriglyceridemia. 

Pronova BioPharma Norge, now part of BASF, took icosabutate as far as a pair of phase 2 trials. But progress ground to a halt at that point, despite the hypertriglyceridemia trial hitting its primary efficacy endpoint. 

BASF looked to outlicense the drug as a treatment for elevated levels of triglycerides. The people behind NorthSea saw a different opportunity and licensed icosabutate, plus a library of preclinical compounds, to embark on a NASH program.

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The decision to reposition the drug as a NASH treatment is underpinned by research suggesting supplementation with fatty acids may affect liver fat and other factors relevant to the population. That is part of the scientific rationale. 

The business case is straightforward. As Forbion learned when Allergan snapped up Akarna months after its investment, demand for NASH drugs is strong. If NorthSea guides icosabutate successfully through phase 2b and supporting studies, it will have full ownership of a phase 3-ready NASH candidate. 

With Allergan being joined by Bristol-Myers Squibb, Gilead and many others in the NASH race, that could give NorthSea the ear of a slew of deal-hungry drugmakers.

De Ree and Round have enlisted the support of people who worked on the drug at Pronova to help reach that point. Hilde Steineger, David Fraser and Tore Skjaeret have all followed the asset to NorthSea, where they have taken up the roles of COO, CSO and VP of chemistry and CMC, respectively.