Navitor grabs a $23.5M A round to tackle a key crossroad for disease

A little more than a year ago, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) disbanded George Vlasuk's team at Sirtris and absorbed the R&D work in its Pennsylvania operations. But that didn't end the relationship. Today Vlasuk is back at the helm of a new biotech dubbed Navitor Pharmaceuticals, which was seeded initially by Polaris and is now coming out of stealth mode with a $23.5 million Series A and the backing of a syndicate that includes SR One, GlaxoSmithKline's venture arm.

This new Cambridge, MA-based venture, which also has drawn support from Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) Development Corp., Atlas Venture, the Longevity Fund as well as additional cash from Polaris, is an example of a new breed of biotech. It is built on the lab work of a prestigious investigator and funded with a lean-and-mean plan to get into the clinic, and it's shooting at some big targets.

In this case the investigator in question is MIT Professor David Sabatini, who has spent years exploring the role of the mTOR kinase pathway in the development of various diseases. The mTOR pathway is targeted by rapamycin, Vlasuk tells FierceBiotech, but that drug blocks both the mTORC1 as well as the mTORC2 pathway when you really only want to target mTORC1 and leave mTORC2 alone. "It's mostly mTORC1 that becomes dysfunctional," says the CEO, and it is responsive to nutrient availability.

Navitor's job, with Sabatini's assistance, will be to both downregulate and upregulate the target, which can affect diseases ranging from diabetes to neurodegeneration and musculoskeletal conditions. Diabetes has largely been off-limits to small biotechs, which typically wouldn't have the resources needed to get a drug through late-stage testing. But Vlasuk is optimistic that he's attracting plenty of Big Pharma interest that could take something big forward, while reserving rare diseases and other more practical targets for the biotech.

"I think we have enough in this round to get us to a clinical candidate, says Vlasuk, who now has 6 full-timers on staff, including two from Sabatini's lab. Some potential partnerships could add to the runway, he adds.

- here's the release