In the U.S., about 37 million people live with kidney disease, which is more than 1 in 7 American adults. But Blaine McKee, the CEO of the newly unveiled Cambridge, MA, startup Walden Biosciences, hopes to change that.
McKee and his team founded the company to reverse the progression of kidney disease for a “massively underserved” patient population. And with a positive regulatory environment, “promising science,” an experienced team and $51 million in series A cash, the 12-person company hopes to hit the clinic soon.
Walden is taking a two-pronged approach: antibodies and small molecules. Its first approach targets soluble urokinase plasminogen activating receptor (suPAR), a protein that signals kidney disease, with the goal of reducing inflammation and boosting kidney function. "There are very strong disease associations between the levels of suPAR and acute kidney injury, chronic kidney disease,” Walden's chief scientific officer, Alex Duncan, said.
The second is designed to preserve podocytes, or kidney cells that aid in filtration, by activating an enzyme called dynamin, which maintains the structure of the kidneys' filtration apparatus.
“We've taken a bottom-up reductionist approach to really try and understand the role of individual components, but also a top-down holistic approach,” Duncan said. “The situation really with the kidneys is this structure is absolutely unique as an organ and it has both the mechanical as well as the biochemical functions.”
The company is focused largely on kidney disease “because that's where we see the opportunity and where we see patients that actually have no real options, or at least in end-stage renal disease, it's dialysis or transplantation,” Duncan said, adding that the disease also carries a high risk of mortality.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the kidneys, too: More than 20% of intensive care unit patients with COVID-19 have lost kidney function, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
And in that regard, Walden may be uniquely positioned to help. “People with higher levels of suPAR actually have a worse prognosis for COVID ... so that's one area that we may look at,” Duncan said.
For now, though, Walden will use the funding—which came from Arch and UCB Ventures—to get both programs into the clinic and add a few new members to the team.
“Our objective is to totally change the face of renal diseases. Historically, they would potentially slow the progression, manage hypertension, glucose levels. We’re quite ambitious here. We're looking to completely transform the treatment—not just slow it, but reverse it,” McKee said. And while the funding is an important milestone, “we think it’s just the beginning.”