GSK buys celiac startup Sitari 6 years after founding it with Avalon

GlaxoSmithKline has struck a deal to buy Sitari Pharmaceuticals, the first company created through its collaboration with Avalon Ventures.

Sitari, a preclinical-stage biotech, is developing inhibitors of the TG2 enzyme as treatments for the autoimmune digestive disorder celiac disease.

GSK and Avalon came together to found Sitari in 2013. Sitari raised a $10 million series A round in the same year and then worked within Avalon’s COI Pharmaceuticals incubator to develop intellectual property in-licensed from Stanford University’s Chaitan Kholsa. Having established a preclinical program, Sitari has now generated enough evidence to persuade GSK to acquire its operations.

The takeover, the value of which remains undisclosed, will give GSK ownership of Sitari and all of its intellectual property, setting the Big Pharma up work to get a TG2 inhibitor into clinical development.

Sitari and GSK’s interest in TG2 is underpinned by evidence that the enzymatic activity of the protein triggers the inflammatory cascade that drives and defines the disease. That cascade is behind the gastrointestinal damage and impaired nutrient absorption that prevents celiac disease patients from eating foods that contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.

By inhibiting TG2, Sitari thinks it can dial down the autoimmune response initiated by the protein, thereby freeing celiac disease patients from some of the constraints and complications associated with their condition.

That idea has attracted other groups. Last year, Dr. Falk Pharma and Zedira began a phase 2a trial of TG2 inhibitor ZED1227. In a mouse model, ZED1227 reduced gastrointestinal TG2 to normal levels.

The acquisition of Sitari moves GSK into competition with these companies and other biotechs that are coming at celiac disease from different angles. More broadly, the acquisition represents a win for the model GSK and Avalon established, even if it looks set to be the only biotech the Big Pharma buys through the collaboration.

“GSK and Avalon have pioneered a unique biotech funding model designed to identify novel targets from top-tier academic labs and translate cutting-edge discoveries into promising clinical candidates,” GSK Senior Vice President John Lepore said in a statement.