Merck-led syndicate bets $30M on Visterra's infectious-disease pipeline

Backed by the insights of a high-profile MIT scientist with a lead antibody now poised to make an assault on a Phase II proof-of-concept study, Visterra has rounded up a $30 million venture round for its next-gen work on infectious diseases from a marquee group of investors and now plans to beef up the pipeline.

Brian Pereira

"All the money is in the bank," Visterra CEO Brian Pereira tells FierceBiotech, noting that this deal isn't tranched, as is often the case for sizable venture rounds. Now the Cambridge, MA-based biotech--a 2013 Fierce 15 company--has the cash in hand to move its lead antibody for influenza, VIS410, into Phase II and pointed down the road to proof-of-concept data. And there's also enough money to get another antibody, VIS513 for dengue fever, into the clinic.

There's been a lot of immunology work being done on cancer and inflammation, says the CEO, but not so much for infectious diseases. "Our focus has been on using immunological tools, which are very focused and very effective, and we are designing and engineering unique antibodies to these bacteria and viruses in a very specific manner."

This round garnered the support of some big names. Merck Research Labs Venture Fund, Vertex Venture Holdings and Temasek stepped up to lead the round with Polaris Partners, Flagship Ventures, Omega Funds and Alexandria Venture Investments joining in the syndicate. Another new investor, Cycad Group, is coming in as well. Merck Research Labs and Flagship, a well-known early-stage biotech investor, formed a partnership in 2012 aimed at jointly funding potential breakthrough therapeutic research.

Visterra is building on the work of noted MIT investigator Ram Sasisekharan, a professor of biological engineering whose lab at MIT has already helped launch a series of biotechs, including Momenta. In this case the technology is aimed at countering the constantly mutating target. They've identified a highly networked cluster of amino acids on the hemagglutinin protein that acts as a kind of grappling hook the influenza virus uses to invade cells. With a newly engineered antibody, Visterra believes it can hit that target and thwart a range of flu types. It could be used for both prevention as well as treatment--one of the holy grails in global research.

The company has already attracted support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helps build the Series A to $26 million. And the CEO suggested there's been some progress on building some collaborations as well.

"At this point we have not announced any collaborations," Pereira added, "but stay tuned."

Lincoln Chee, a venture partner at Vertex Venture Holdings, is joining the board while Merck's Janelle Anderson is joining as a board observer.

- read the release

Special Report: FierceBiotech's 2013 Fierce 15 - Visterra

PLUS – Malvern, PA-based Aclaris Therapeutics rounded up a $21 million round designed to get its lead drug for a common type of benign skin tumor through a new drug application. Two Phase IIb studies are currently underway for A-101 as a new treatment for seborrheic keratosis, which tends to afflict patients who are middle aged and older. Vivo Ventures, Fidelity Biosciences and Sofinnova Ventures contributed to the round, which brings the total raise so far to $42 million. "We believe A-101 has the potential to address an unmet clinical need for millions of patients with SK and we are pleased to have an outstanding group of investors that share this belief," said Aclaris CEO Neal Walker. SKs are usually removed for cosmetic reasons. Release