Companies have been piling into the nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) space lately, and Genentech is no exception. The biotech acquired Jecure Therapeutics and its stable of NLRP3 inhibitors for an undisclosed amount.
San Diego-based Jecure started out in 2015 with seed financing from Versant Ventures. In early 2017, the startup nabbed another $20 million in series A cash from Versant to develop its NASH programs. Its pipeline targets NLRP3 inflammasomes, protein complexes that play a role in the body’s immune response against infection and trauma. When activated, NLRP3 causes pro-inflammatory interleukins to be released in the body to resolve infection. When this process goes awry, it causes harmful inflammation that can be found in various diseases, from diabetes and NASH to neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers.
“We’ve had a long-standing interest in targeting inflammatory pathways that may play a role in a number of serious diseases,” said James Sabry, M.D., Ph.D., global head of Pharma Partnering, Roche. “We’re excited to combine Jecure’s portfolio with our discovery and development capabilities, as well as our expertise in NLRP3 biology, to potentially help people with inflammatory diseases.”
Genentech isn’t the only player interested in NLRP3. This year alone, U.K.-based Nodthera, Boston’s IFM Tre and Irish-British Inflazome all raised more than $30 million apiece to advance their NLRP3 programs. Nodthera and IFM Tre have not zeroed in on specific treatment areas within the inflammatory disease umbrella, while Inflazome has highlighted gout, NASH, Crohn’s disease, metabolic disease and Cryopyrin-associated periodic syndromes as its initial targets.
NLRP3-aside, there has been a veritable glut of companies looking to drug NASH, including Big Pharma and small biotechs. Earlier this month, Seal Rock Therapeutics came out of stealth with a liver-selective ASK1 inhibitor, which it hopes to push into human trials in 2020. Seal Rock’s debut followed an $80 million series B for Terns Pharma, which launched in April with $30 million and a trio of NASH candidates licensed from Eli Lilly.
Akero Therapeutics and 89Bio are both working on analogs of fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21), a hormone that plays a key role in regulating metabolism and signaling throughout the body. While it could help restore metabolic balance, the half-life of native FGF21 is only about half an hour, which would require unrealistically frequent dosing. Akero and 89Bio are working on longer-lasting analogs of FGF21 licensed from Amgen and Teva respectively.
While Lilly, Amgen and Teva have handed off responsibility for their NASH programs, Big Pharma rivals Novartis and Pfizer joined forces on theirs, in a bid to come up with an effective combination treatment for the disease.