Visterra - 2013 Fierce 15

Seeking a universal solution to influenza

Based: Cambridge, MA
Founded: 2011
CEO: Brian Pereira
Clinical Focus: Influenza

The scoop: One of the big problems with all seasonal as well as pandemic flu vaccines is that they're designed to hit a stationary target, while the flu is known for constant mutations. Visterra, though, believes it has hit on a brand-new way to tackle the flu. Building on the work of noted MIT investigator Ram Sasisekharan, a professor of biological engineering, they've identified a highly networked cluster of amino acids on the hemagglutinin protein that acts as a kind of grappling hook the influenza virus uses to invade cells. With a newly engineered antibody, Visterra believes it can hit that target and thwart a range of flu types. And it could be used for both prevention as well as treatment--one of the holy grails in global research.

What makes Visterra fierce: Just days ago Visterra's investigators reviewed preclinical animal studies that showed their lead therapy--VIS410--worked against lethal models for H5 and H9 pandemic viruses in mice. And now they're getting ready to launch human studies after an expanded Series A pumped their venture backing to $26 million, with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which took a rare equity stake in a company that has attracted considerable attention in the influenza world.  

The biotech has a distinguished scientific pedigree. Sasisekharan is known as a wiz in scientific circles. He was called in by the FDA 5 years ago when contaminated batches of the blood thinner Heparin started to kill people. Less than two months after the FDA placed the call, the scientist had figured out what was causing the deaths--an allergic response to the contaminant--and soon after had his studies published. But even before that he had established his reputation as a leader in bird flu research.

Provided 410 works the way Visterra expects, says newly named CEO Brian Pereira, it can not only wind up in stockpiles around the globe, but it can also be used to protect high-risk medical workers or patients in the event of a pandemic. And the threat of a pandemic lurks constantly.

The next step is to run a safety study in healthy volunteers next year and then follow up with a proof-of-concept Phase II trial to start to prove that it's safe and effective. But there is a wild card as it relates to that rough timeline:

"All bets are off if a pandemic strain emerges," says Pereira.

There were three big reasons why he wanted the job, says Pereira. One, he knew Sasisekharan and loved the technology. The MIT professor has been the inspiration for Momenta and Cerulean, which had attracted a first-rate group of venture backers--the kind of VCs that would support a company like this for the long haul. And finally, he already knew the preclinical investigators at the company and thought highly of the team.

The long-term vision for the company, which currently has 25 staffers, is to add a program for dengue, for which there's no approved vaccine and only very weak results for the most advanced program. And the company already has a corporate collaborator to work with.

Looking over the technology, Pfizer's ($PFE) picky VP of biotherapeutics/R&D, Jose‐Carlos Gutierrez‐Ramos, signed on as the company's first corporate partner last year.

Investors: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Omega Funds, Polaris Venture Partners, Flagship Ventures and Lux Capital

For more:
Visterra's engineered antibody passes preclinical test as universal flu treatment

-- John Carroll (email)

Visterra - 2013 Fierce 15