Emerging Drug Developer: Opsona Therapeutics

Opsona inks new research deal, reaps VC funds

The runway at Ireland's Opsona Therapeutics just got three years longer.

That's how much time investors bought when they chipped in on a $23 million Series B last week. And CEO Mark Heffernan says the cash will be enough to move its lead program into the clinic and through Phase IIa.

Opsona was born in 2005, a time when Ireland's Celtic Tiger economy was going strong. Now the economy in Ireland has weakened considerably, like much of the rest of Europe, but Opsona was still able to round up a significant amount of venture cash for its second round. And Heffernan credits the company's work advancing new therapies to modulate the innate immune system for its success in the face of widespread adversity.
"We'll be in the clinic next year," says Heffernan, with a monoclonal antibody (OPN-305) targeted to a key toll-like receptor.  "We're focused initially on acute indications," he adds, which includes potentially ischemia damage caused by transplantation as well as rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes - both huge markets.

Opsona is still small, with a staff of 18. But it has already scored a research deal with Wyeth. And this morning Opsona announced that it had inked another research and collaboration deal with CSL Limited. The collaboration - which includes an undisclosed upfront payment -- covers the identification of novel vaccine adjuvant formulations, based on Opsona's technology, OpsoVac, which could target infectious diseases and certain cancers.

It hasn't hurt Opsona that Ireland's government has focused on biotechnology as a driver of future economic growth. Enterprise Ireland has been a key supporter of the company. The agency contributed money - along with Genentech and others - to Opsona's first round of $8 million. Ireland's Celtic Tiger economy was in full swing.

"With that wealth came a lot of cash and development in interest in the knowledge economy," says Heffernan, who co-founded Opsona. "Ireland invested heavily in basic sciences and research."

For three immunologists at Trinity College in Dublin, it turned out to be a great time to found a new biotech company. And in early 2006 Opsona was ready to report that it had already received its first, unspecified, milestone in its research deal with Wyeth.

"Working together with Wyeth, we have identified key tools to aid in a structured drug discovery platform, which has provided an opportunity for Opsona to accelerate its potential in this field," said founder Luke O'Neill when the milestone was announced.

Novartis Venture Fund, Fountain Healthcare Partners, Inventages Venture Capital and Seroba Kernel Life Sciences all participated in the latest funding round.

Their money will help support Opsona's new laboratory in Switzerland, which was acquired when Opsona bought inflammosome technology from a Swiss company. The laboratory will carry out assay development and biochemical work for new projects and therapeutics.

In coming years Heffernan says he would like to acquire more inflammation programs in the late preclinical or early clinical stage. And he notes that as the economy has weakened, a biotech company with cash in the bank has a number of opportunities to pick from.

"Anecdotally, we can see companies that have to trim their spending, looking to divest," says Seamus O'Hara, a partner in Seroba Kernel Life Sciences Limited, one of the lead investors. "To some extent, it's a buyer's market."

Long term, Heffernan says Opsona will continue to build up its strategic base in Switzerland as it ponders an eventual IPO or M&A move. For now, though, the focus is on advancing its products.

Emerging Drug Developer: Opsona Therapeutics