Experienced biotech team snags $33M for promising PhII cholesterol drug

Now that the successful biopharma team of Roger Newton and Tim Mayleben has reunited to run an upstart--Esperion--with a promising mid-stage cholesterol drug in the pipeline, some well-known names in the venture crowd have decided to tag along and see if they just might have a big winner on their hands.

Newton recruited Mayleben, who had been the COO of the original Esperion when they sold it to a rich Pfizer ($PFE) back in 2004 for $1.3 billion, away from Aastrom ($ASTM) and now they're back together running the re-launched Esperion after re-gaining the rights to a group of molecules that Pfizer had snagged in the buyout. And they just landed a $33 million investment round to keep the ball rolling at a critical point. 

The Ann Arbor, MI-based biotech has been attracting considerable attention for ETC-1002, an LDL-lowering pill that was able to cut bad cholesterol by up to 43% in a Phase IIa study. Esperion is advancing the drug in the hopes that it can prove it works without causing some common side effects associated with statins like muscle pain and weakness--which eliminate an estimated 20% of the patient population.

As Forbes' Matthew Herper points out in a story today, Esperion is a rare biotech, with what may be the only mid-stage cholesterol drug asset in development after a string of high-profile failures in the atherosclerosis field. PCSK9 drugs at Amgen ($AMGN) and Sanofi ($SNY) have attracted the lion's share of the attention so far for dramatically lowering LDL levels. But Esperion could wind up surprising the industry.

"Obviously it's very early, but the drug does all the right things: lower LDL, lower triglycerides," the Cleveland Clinic's Steven Nissen tells Herper. Cardio drugs, though, are required to go through massive Phase III studies in order to reassure regulators that they don't have another surprise health threat on their hands. So far, this treatment has only been tested in 240 patients. And while the safety profile looks good so far, there's certainly no guarantee that a surprise safety issue won't kill this drug like so many before it.

After Newton struck a deal to get Pfizer to spin out the asset, Esperion now owns 100% of the rights, and a group of VCs today announced that they had invested $33 million in the company to get it through multiple mid-stage studies--which could leave the company on the threshold of a Phase III trial with a very valuable asset.

Longitude Capital, a new investor, ran the round with existing investors Aisling Capital, Alta Partners, Domain Associates, Arboretum Ventures and Asset Management participating in the funding.

- here's the press release
- read the story from Forbes