Ex-Gilead execs bag $80M to trial drug licensed from Merck KGaA

Trucode CEO Marshall Fordyce
Vera Therapeutics CEO Marshall Fordyce, M.D. (Trucode)

Vera Therapeutics has raised $80 million to take a drug licensed from Merck KGaA into a phase 2b kidney disease clinical trial. The drug, atacicept, has failed multiple autoimmune clinical trials, but the leadership at Vera, which is heavy on former Gilead staffers, thinks it has a future in IgA nephropathy.

Atacicept is a recombinant fusion protein designed to selectively inhibit B cells. Merck, which initially worked with ZymoGenetics on the candidate, identified the mechanism of action as a good fit for autoimmune diseases, leading it to run clinical trials in multiple sclerosis, optic neuritis, rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).

The drug failed to improve outcomes in most of those diseases. A phase 2 SLE clinical trial, which missed its primary endpoint, reported improved outcomes in a pre-specified subgroup analysis. 

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Vera’s interest in atacicept is underpinned by data in another indication. In 2017, Merck, having seen atacicept fall short in other diseases, began a phase 2 trial to evaluate the drug in 16 patients with the kidney disease IgA nephropathy.

A 24-week interim analysis published last year linked atacicept to a dose-dependent drop in serum immunoglobulins and an improvement in the urine protein-creatinine ratio. While small, the clinical trial provided early proof of concept that atacicept may improve outcomes in patients with IgA nephropathy. There is no treatment for the disease. 

Vera has secured the money to put atacicept through a bigger test. Abingworth led the $80 million series C round with assists from Sofinnova Investments, Longitude Capital, Fidelity, Surveyor Capital, Octagon Capital, Kleiner Perkins, GV and Alexandria Venture Investments. 

Marshall Fordyce, M.D., who once worked as senior director of clinical research at Gilead, founded Vera, originally as Trucode Gene Repair, and hired former colleagues to fill key positions. Joanne Curley, Ph.D., joined from Gilead to take up the chief development officer role at Vera. Tom Doan also transferred from Gilead to work as SVP, clinical operations and data management. 
Gilead is represented on the commercial side of the operation, too, with Lauren Frenz occupying the chief business officer role at Vera. Frenz worked in the commercial planning group at Gilead before leaving to join Fordyce at Trucode. 

Vera CEO Fordyce has put together the team and raised the money to take atacicept into phase 2b around the middle of the year. Another portion of the series C proceeds will support manufacturing scale up. 

Editor's note: The article was updated to clarify the prior clinical performance of atacicept.