Versant’s Jecure Therapeutics debuts with a focus on NASH, fibrosis

The preclinical startup may be years behind its NASH rivals but hopes its platform will set it apart.

VC Versant has pumped $20 million on its own into its newly launched preclinical liver disease upstart Jecure, with its founders coming out from a former Versant biotech.

This founding team includes CEO Jeffrey Stafford, Ph.D., and CSO James Veal, Ph.D., both of whom were execs at Quanticel Pharmaceuticals, an oncology biotech founded by Versant and acquired by Celgene two years ago.

The pair have a 20-year history and have been co-inventors on multiple products including cancer med Votrient (pazopanib) and diabetes drug Nesina (alogliptin).

Their new venture is based on a platform nurtured from more than a decade of research, and includes assays and models developed in the lab of academic founder Ariel Feldstein, M.D., division chief of gastroenterology at the University of California, San Diego.

Its early focus is on the highly anticipated approach to treat non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), or fatty liver disease, an increasingly large health problem affecting millions of Americans that is slated to become the number one cause of liver transplants from the next decade.

There are no meds on the market for the disease, but with several candidates already in phase 3, Intercept, Genfit, Shire and others are hoping to be first to get to a market that could be worth tens of billions of dollars.

Jecure is much earlier back in this race, but the startup sees itself as having an “industry-leading platform” which incorporates siRNA-based murine fibrosis models for target identification and validation.

It also has knock-in models for in vitro screening and “a unique NASH model that captures key features of the disease for in vivo screening,” according to a statement.

For now, this platform will target the inflammasome, a multiprotein complex known to play a key role in driving liver inflammation and fibrosis. The biotech says it expects to name the first of several development candidates of this class “by late 2017.”

“The Series A backing of Jecure renews a successful partnership with Versant, and provides us the opportunity to build another transformational company in a field that is starving for innovation,” said Stafford in the statement. “We continue to have ongoing discussions with strategic and financial partners while we independently build a pipeline of drug candidates based on the discoveries from the UCSD NASH platform.”

“We are thrilled to again be working with Jeff and Jim on a new company,” said Brad Bolzon, Ph.D., managing director at Versant and Jecure board member, in the statement. “Together with Ariel Feldstein and his colleagues, they represent a formidable team that combines drug hunting savvy with world-class scientific expertise and important know-how into this field.”