Emerging Drug Developer: Avila Therapeutics

This morning Avila Therapeutics simultaneously announced that it raised $30 million in its second round of venture capital and struck an option agreement that is worth up to $200 million in milestones and an upfront payment. And the company tells FierceBiotech that it now has the money to take a lead program into the clinic and start gathering key data.

Novartis Option Fund led the investment round. A group of existing investors--Abingworth, Advent Venture Partners, Atlas Venture and Polaris Venture Partners-all took part. And Novartis Option Fund also inked the option deal, which will help Avila advance its third development program.

Using a drug development platform dubbed Avilomics, Waltham, MA-based Avila is developing protein silencing therapies--covalent drugs--that are designed to achieve a durable bond with targeted proteins. And the developer says the technology has the potential to offer a rich harvest of best-in-class therapies with a lengthy period of activity against a broad range of targets.

Juswinder Singh, the chief scientific officer and co-founder of the company, came up with the basic idea working at home. His brainstorm warranted a Series A round to help the fledgling company get started.

"We're excited about where we've come with the science over the last couple of years," says CEO Katrine Bosley, who joined the company in May. "And we've been starting to talk about some of our data at various scientific meetings.

"Hepatitis C is one of two lead programs that are pretty similar in their timing," adds Bosley, who had been in business development for Adnexus and Biogen Idec. "The second is Btk (a target for autoimmune disease and some cancers). We will take one of those two into the clinic next year." Which one goes first hasn't been revealed yet, but both are "on track" to go into the clinic in 2010.

"That $30 million will take us to mid to late 2011," says the CEO. That should be enough time to gain early clinical data on one of its lead programs while moving earlier stage programs into the preclinical phase as Avila moves to expand its pipeline.

Like a growing number of up-and-coming biotechs, Avila also has its eye on striking partnership deals early on. The option deal with Novartis, says Bosley, is an example of the developer's potential for creating new pacts. And Avila has plenty of targets to go after, says the CEO, which gives it greater freedom to tap partnership cash to fund the company.

"It's not a one-shot deal," says Bosley about Avila's technology. "There are lots of ways to help build the company. Partnerships can really be company-building for us. There are well over 100 druggable target classes, not just targets, we know where we can apply this approach."

Avila already has a staff of 27, large compared to the average three-year-old biotech company. Those staffers are all needed to advance the science, and develop the pipeline, Bosley says, adding that Avila is well positioned to make some quick progress.

Where Avila goes in the long-term, though, is still well up in the air.

"We think every company has to continually think about the ways one's longer term future can evolve," says the CEO. The goal now is to "create high-value innovative drugs and show this platform is not only productive but productive in delivering best-in-class molecules."

If Avila delivers on that score, she sums up, "there will be opportunities to realize that value."

Emerging Drug Developer: Avila Therapeutics

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