Henri Termeer backs biotech upstart Artax's autoimmune research

Henri Termeer

Former Genzyme CEO and prolific biotech investor Henri Termeer has stepped in to back another upstart. The biotech legend joined a syndicate that includes Advent Life Sciences and A.M. Pappas in putting up $10 million to fund some crucial proof-of-principle trial work for Artax Biopharma, which believes that it has a unique new key to unlock remedies for autoimmune diseases.

Their lead drug is AX-024, an Nck inhibitor designed to selectively prevent an immune system attack on healthy tissue, while ignoring a T-cell response to guard against invading pathogens. The big idea at the little Cambridge, MA-based biotech is that a more selective technology can exploit the distinction between the weaker chemical signals sent by healthy tissue compared to the stronger signals pathogens emit to elicit a T cell response. And by inhibiting the Nck protein, their drugs could potentially have applications against autoimmune diseases like psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.

That idea excited Termeer's interest at a meeting at JP Morgan in January, says Artax founder and CEO Damia Tormo, who splits his time between the Boston area and his native Spain, where the research is being done in Dr. Balbino Alarcon's lab.

The company got started two years ago, says Tormo in an interview with FierceBiotech, with $4 million to get the work underway. An early stage study is helping shed some light on where the Nck approach is likely to be best suited for the proof-of-principle study, though Tormo says a final decision on the target has yet to be made.

It makes a lot of sense to base the company in Cambridge, says the CEO. It is, after all, the center of the action in biotech. "If you want to be in this field you have to be around the people with knowledge and expertise," he says. And he's planning to do some recruiting to beef up the company's small 4-person staff.

Termeer has been a busy biotech player in the years since Sanofi ($SNY) engineered a $20 billion buyout of Genzyme, leaving the longtime industry exec a multimillion-dollar windfall to play with. He co-founded Lysosomal Therapeutics with Bob Carpenter, another Genzyme vet and chairman of Hydra Biosciences. He backed the Dutch biotech ProQR and Auraq Biosciences. And he sits on the boards at Moderna, which has been raising vast sums, and Aveo, which is trying now to mount a comeback.

"Artax is pursuing breakthrough science: a targeted immunomodulatory approach for autoimmune diseases that does not compromise the protective function of T-cells to external threats," said Termeer in a statement. "Artax has the potential to treat a range of autoimmune conditions in which current therapies are not optimal and may result in serious side effects."

- here's the release