Merck Ventures leads $11M round in solid tumor startup

Merck Ventures has led a $10.8 million (€9.6 million) investment in Inthera Bioscience. The series A sets the Swiss biotech up to wrap up preclinical development of a lead candidate against cancers associated with human papillomavirus (HPV).

As in Inthera’s €3.4 million seed round in 2015, Merck Ventures, Aglaia BioMedical Ventures and Novo Seeds contributed equally to the series A but the former—the VC wing of Merck KGaA—was described as leading the investment. An unnamed private financier also contributed to the round.

Zurich, Switzerland-based Inthera attracted the support on the strength of its platform’s potential to inhibit intracellular protein-protein interactions. PPIs make up the lion’s share of control points in the body and play a role in multiple diseases. But protein-protein interfaces are very different from the lock and key interactions between enzymes and substrates. These differences make it hard to design drugs that inhibit PPIs.

Investors in Inthera think its platform for rationally designing oral small molecules that inhibit PPIs can overcome these difficulties.

“Inthera’s technology has the potential to radically change our perspective on the drugability of intracellular PPIs,” Merck Ventures VP Jasper Bos said in a statement.

The centerpiece of Inthera’s strategy is a small molecule against tumors associated with HPV, such as cervical, anal and oropharyngeal cancer. Inthera flagged up the program as one of its top priorities at the time of the seed round and it is still leading the charge. The series A round equips Inthera to finish off preclinical development of the asset and advance it as far as the start of phase 1. Inthera CEO Ulrich Kessler expects to complete the preclinical work late in 2018 or early in 2019. 

Inthera also plans to put money into the development of disruptors of hypoxia-inducible signaling. Such signaling happens at low oxygen levels and contributes to the aggressiveness of tumors. Interfering with the process could render cancer more susceptible to treatment.

The Series A saw Merck Ventures’ Keno Gutierrez, Ph.D. and Novo Seeds’ Emmanuelle Coutanceau join the board at Inthera. Gutierrez is a recent arrival at Merck Ventures but has more than a decade of biopharma experience from earlier stints at Omega Funds, Piper Jaffray and IMS Health. Coutanceau lists stints at Auriga Partners and Omnes Capital on her résumé.