Fledgling Rhythm recruits Merck vet to helm the Boston biotech

Rhythm, a venture-backed biotech startup based in Boston, has hired a Merck vet to head the company as it prepares to push two development programs past early-stage development and into the mid-stage arena. Dr. Keith Gottesdiener (pictured) has been recruited to take the helm of the fledgling drug developer after completing a stint as Merck's late-stage therapeutic group leader, which gave him authority over the pharma giant's pivotal trials. He had previously been Merck's chief of early-stage clinical development.

Co-founders Bart Henderson and Liz Stoner set up the company, snagging a $21 million original A round from MPM Capital and New Enterprise Associates in early 2010. Stoner is a managing director at MPM, where Henderson had landed a position as entrepreneur-in-residence. The initial round was later expanded to $40 million when Third Rock Ventures stepped in as a backer, drawn by its work on GI metabolic disorder, obesity and diabetes. Lou Tartaglia, a partner at Third Rock, has been filling in as chief scientific officer, and Henderson says that Rhythm plans to name a full-timer for that key slot in just a few weeks.

The new CEO will be entirely focused on RM-131 for the treatment of diabetic gastroparesis--a problem with gastric emptying characterized by some painful side effects--and RM-493 for obesity and diabetes. The RM-493 treatment cleared a primate study with an average weight loss of 13% and a clean safety bill, says Henderson. RM-493 is starting a Phase I study with a mid-stage trial expected to launch next year. RM-131 has completed Phase I and is slated to transition into Phase II next year as well.

"We spun both programs out of (France's) Ipsen," says Henderson, the president of Rhythm. "They had done the discovery work and we invested in both programs because the depth of the preclinical data was so broad and strong and really supported our view that peptides have the advantage for targeting metabolic targets."

Henderson notes that Rhythm is still very much a virtual company, but it's been steadily piecing together an experienced team of industry players to run the company. If all goes according to plan, the biotech will start seeking out partnership deals around the end of Phase II, a classic inflection point for most drug developers.

- here's the Rhythm release