Akebia snags $41M financing in anemia-drug race with GlaxoSmithKline, others

In a race with rival programs from GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Astellas Pharma, the biotech startup Akebia Therapeutics has rallied venture investors to fund its charge toward late-stage development of a novel anemia drug. Today the company disclosed a $41 million Series C financing amid plans for a Phase IIb study later this year for AKB-6548, which is among a potential blockbuster class of oral drugs that could serve as safer alternatives to EPO therapies for anemia patients such as Amgen's ($AMGN) Aranesp. 

Akebia, which spun off from the former pharma unit of Procter & Gamble ($PG) in 2007, raised capital for the third-round financing from a bevy of backers. The syndicate for the round includes lead investors Satter Investment Management and Novo A/S as well as Novartis Venture Funds, AgeChem Venture, Athenian Venture Partners, Kearny Venture Partners, Venture Investors LLC, Triathlon Medical Ventures, and Sigvion Capital Fund.

The Series C round follows Akebia's 93-patient Phase IIa study of AKB-6548, which showed dose-related increases in hemoglobin and red blood cell levels. Patients required low doses of iron to hit hemoglobin targets, according to the company, and safety of the experimental treatment was on par with placebo. The compound belongs to a class of drugs, known as inhibitors of hypoxia-inducible factor prolyl hydroxylase, which includes Glaxo's candidate known as GSK 1278863 and ASP1517 from Astellas and its partner FibroGen.   

The drugs mimic the reaction of the body to hypoxia, or low levels of oxygen, to generate the glycoprotein EPO, which controls production of red blood cells. Astellas and Fibrogen launched a Phase III program for their contender in anemia patients with chronic kidney disease in December. Like Akebia's, GSK's compound is in midstage development.

Cincinnati-based Akebia, which previously disclosed a $22 million Series B round and $25 million Series A round, expects its third round of financing to fund its planned Phase IIb study and work required to launch a Phase III study in anemia associated with kidney disease. Like its rivals, the company aims to highlight the safety of its drug relative to existing EPO therapies.

Akebia and its rivals have targeted patients with kidney disease. Amgen and others have recorded billions of dollars in revenue from sales of EPO therapies to those patients, yet their fortunes have dwindled after warnings from the FDA about increased cardiovascular and cancer risks from the treatments.

Akebia CEO Joseph Gardner wasn't immediately available to comment on the latest financing found this morning. He and fellow P&G veteran Robert Shalwitz, Akebia's chief medical officer, co-founded the company in 2007.

- here's the company's release