Biotech guru Gregory Verdine lands $18M round for new WaVe drug developer

Gregory Verdine

A U.S./Japanese hybrid biotech chaired and co-founded by Gregory Verdine, the high-profile Harvard investigator now laboring as CEO of Warp Drive Bio, has gathered together $18 million in a transpacific venture round and set its sights on developing a "revolutionary" new class of nucleic acid drugs based on a potentially breakthrough approach to drug design.

An increasingly prolific RA Capital Management joined Kagoshima Shinsangyo Sosei Investment to lead the round for WaVe Life Sciences with the original seed investor, SNBL. That money will back an inchoate R&D platform that is based on the scientific insights of Verdine and Japan's Takeshi Wada, from Tokyo University.

CEO Paul Bolno tells FierceBiotech that the strategy is to develop an in-house pipeline of antisense and exon-skipping drug candidates while actively partnering with other developers on a new approach to drug development that promises to spawn simpler, better and far more stable therapeutics. And he adds that the fledgling company, formed from the combination of two small biotechs with roots that date back to 2009, has already inked a pact with an unnamed pharma partner.

The big idea at WaVe is that Verdine and Wada have constructed a new approach to developing nucleic acid drugs with a single oligonucleotide structure. In antisense programs--which currently rely on a phosphorothioate backbone containing a complex set of 524,288 isomers--the new approach would work by cleaving mRNA at specific sites; a precision chop that promises to precisely target genetic variations that trigger diseases. They vow that this new epigenetic paradigm will be far simpler and scalable than the present-day methods in use at the leading clinical-stage companies focused on antisense, siRNA, mRNA and microRNA. And while still in preclinical development, they're promising that this "revolutionary" new approach can avoid the potential side effects and deliverability issues that have complicated far more advanced programs.

"We're shooting to get into the clinic by the end of 2016," says Bolno, who now has a staff of 20 with a lab in Cambridge, MA, and a research facility in Okinawa. The staff, he adds, should swell significantly over the next year.

WaVe has already benefited quite a lot with Verdine as chairman of the board and scientific founder. As a professor at Harvard he helped spawn a lineup of biotechs, then made a big leap into the business by taking the reins at Warp Drive Bio back in 2013 after Third Rock bankrolled the company. His startup credits include Aileron, Tokai ($TKAI), Enanta ($ENTA), Eleven Biotherapeutics and Ontorii, which was folded into Chiralgen to make WaVe. His wife, Kasumi Verdine, is the business manager at WaVe. Bolno is an experienced BD exec with a long track record that includes a stint at GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK).

"WaVe's technology has the potential to both improve upon existing nucleic acid programs in development across the industry as well as solve new problems, opening doors to new disease areas," said Peter Kolchinsky, managing general partner of RA Capital and a director of WaVe. "We love investing in companies with talented, driven people with whom we can engage in an idea-rich prioritization process, including determining which programs to develop independently, spin-out or partner, and WaVe is among the richest we have seen."

- here's the release