Armed with $60M series A and Lilly's backing, Volastra enters clinic via Amgen cancer med

Volastra Therapeutics has boosted its pipeline and its bank balance in one day, securing its first clinical-stage asset courtesy of a Big Pharma licensing deal as well as gathering $60 million in financing to focus on human trials.

The lead asset in question is sovilnesib, a small-molecule K1F18A inhibitor that Volastra has licensed from Amgen. The med is currently proceeding through a phase 1 trial in patients with advanced solid tumors, having already picked up fast-track designation from the FDA to treat platinum-resistant, high grade serous ovarian cancer. Volastra is also tacking on $60 million in series A funds nearly two years after the company unveiled an expanded seed round. 

The addition of sovilnesib, formerly known as AMG650, is a rare, early hedging of the bets for a biotech that’s now raked in more than $100 million in two years and a biobucks-heavy pact with Bristol Myers Squibb worth more than $1 billion. 

But the strategy is relatively simple: Instead of chasing a competitor in the K1F18A race, why not just buy an available asset and take the most promising candidate forward?

In addition to sovilnesib, Volastra expects to launch its first internal K1F18A candidate into human trials in the second half of the year. Chief Business Officer Rachel Zolot Schwartz said the deal with Amgen was a “direct fit.” 

“Who turns down an opportunity to become almost 18 months ahead of where they otherwise were, and have a drug [that’s] already been tested in patients?” Schwartz told Fierce Biotech in an interview.

While sovilnesib and Volastra’s lead internal program are going after the same target, they’re differentiated enough to distinguish best-in-class potential, Chief Medical Officer Scott Drutman, M.D., Ph.D., explained.

The financials of the deal weren't disclosed beyond Volastra exchanging an “upfront mix of cash and equity.” Schwartz wouldn’t elaborate on how much equity the company gave up, saying it was “a large component” of the total. 

Amgen isn't the only Big Pharma to make an appearance in Volastra’s update, with the company announcing $60 million in series A funds led in part by Eli Lilly. Founding investors Polaris Partners and Arch Venture Partners also led the financing round.

“Amgen’s equity stake, Lilly's participation in the round—I think it signals the industry widening their interest in this target,” said Schwartz. That Big Pharma validation likely helped other venture capitalists dip their toe into the round as well, she added. 

It’s unknown how long the fundraising round extends Volastra’s runway, but Schwartz was confident that it will be enough to reach “multiple catalysts” in the near term. Amgen’s ongoing study of sovilnesib was slated to wrap up a week ago, and Volastra hasn't indicated when it may launch into a subsequent trial.