Emerging Drug Developer: Limerick BioPharma

Limerick lays the foundation for early development pacts

Wendye Robbins is excited, she tells a caller. And for good reason.

In the previous week the up-and-coming biotech she runs-Limerick BioPharma--scored a crucial investment round, reaping enough cash to take the company to proof-of-concept data and some key early partnerships. The 14 staffers and select group of contractors that make up the Limerick team will be joined by new colleagues as Robbins prepares to do some careful hiring. And they have their eye on a potential slate of therapeutic programs that could take the developer down a number of potentially lucrative paths.

But then, Robbins, an M.D., has been here before.

She was the scientific founder and president of NeurogesX, a biotech now waiting for its first regulatory approvals in the U.S. and Europe for new pain therapies. Robbins left NeurogesX in 2003, took a teaching position at Stanford and set up Limerick in 2005.

"I still teach at Stanford one day a week," says Robbins. But most of her time is devoted to Limerick now, which is currently engaged in preclinical work on Cellular Transporter Pump Activators. Robbins and her scientific co-founders at Limerick say these activators can trigger cellular pumps that keep drugs out of targeted tissues, eliminating serious side effects while leaving the therapies to do their intended work.

In a sense, Limerick is pursuing a class of therapies that could be considered chaperone drugs; a companion treatment that removes key toxicity threats that either limit current therapies or threaten experimental ones.

The activity of these cellular pumps is well known. "Oncologists hate drug-resistance pumps because they keep antitumor compounds from doing what's needed," says the CEO.

"We quickly developed a library of compounds with specific tissue specificity in organs like the pancreas, kidney or liver," says Robbins. "We think these pumps are very important. We want to activate them at the brain stem, kidney and liver, for example, to refuse to admit a toxic molecule."

Limerick's scientific founders believe that they may have also found a separate development path to focus on as well.

"We noticed a year and a half ago that in addition to pumping out drugs from animals' kidneys and pancreas, it was doing an interesting job of curing blood sugar and lipid problems," says Robbins. "Even low doses of activators restored islet cell function."

That kind of progress has helped maintain the loyalty of a small circle of blue chip investors.

In 2006 Limerick gained a $5.5 million Series A. And just days ago the company rounded up $15 million for a Series B designed to take the company through the next 18 months and on to proof-of-concept data. OVP Venture Partners led the round, with Arch Venture Partners, Sevin Rosen Funds and Altitude Funds joining in. Corey Goodman, a high-profile figure in biotechnology, was elected chairman of the company.

"It's not a good time" to be out raising money, notes the CEO. "Thankfully, I do know a lot of venture investors. But there are a lot of funds that we weren't able to even talk to, which are not even investing right now." But enough investors either came back for the second round or volunteered to contribute to the Series B to make it a success.

Says Robbins: "We actually turned away money."

Like a lot of up-and-coming biotechs these days, Limerick has ambitious plans to partner at an early stage. But their partnerships will focus on collaborations that can use Limerick's platform to create a companion therapy that can greatly improve the side effect profile of an existing or experimental therapy, or even save a late-stage program that failed in Phase III.

"We have matched a couple dozen activators with different toxic compounds," says Robbins. "Our strategy is to partner with key players with drugs they want to clean up."

A lead program is being readied for a classic Phase I safety study, and Robbins says Limerick can get a Phase II done by the end of 2010.

"We expect to have a partnership by the early part of next year," she adds. And she's hoping that partnerships can either delay or eliminate the need for any more venture rounds.

These are early days for Limerick, and strange times for the biotech industry. That kind of combination would cloud any long-term forecast. So the CEO keeps it simple, waiting for the data and the drug industry to set a course.

"There's a lot of interest by the partners in what were doing," says Robbins. "It can go a number of ways. We're in a new time in terms of markets which is not attractive in terms of IPOs. We could get acquired, fund ourselves indefinitely with partnership money, but it's hard to say."

At this point, Robbins is just focused on giving the shareholders some good choices.

Emerging Drug Developer: Limerick BioPharma

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