Gates Foundation backs $13M venture add for flu drug developer

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has stepped up with another equity investment in a biotech company, this time making a major contribution to a $13 million Series A add for a startup aiming at a universal preventive as well as therapeutic approach to influenza. Omega Funds also joined the venture top-up, bringing the first venture round for Cambridge, MA-based Visterra to $26 million.

Much of that money is being earmarked to take the preclinical program for VIS410--a broad-spectrum antibody that CEO Steven Brugger believes can demonstrate just what its technology platform can do--into the clinic in 2014. The biotech's platform was spawned at the MIT lab of Ram Sasisekhara, who helped launch Momenta Pharmaceuticals ($MNTA) and served as scientific adviser when Brugger had been COO at the developer.

Visterra has been keeping a low profile up to now, says Brugger, after raising $6 million in seed cash four years ago and opening its labs in 2009. Polaris Venture Partners, Flagship Ventures and Lux Capital put up the first $13 million in Series A cash. And now the veil has been lifted on Visterra, which has a staff of 21.

Brugger tells FierceBiotech that VIS410 has the potential to work against any strain of seasonal or pandemic influenza, "and it should be effective as a preventive and a therapeutic." The technology has a number of applications. Just weeks ago Visterra announced that it had struck a partnership with Pfizer ($PFE), which paid an unspecified upfront and agreed to a slate of milestones for a development deal. The companies did not reveal the targets that Visterra will tackle on behalf of the drug giant.

Visterra is taking a unique antibody approach to flu. Its scientists identified a networked cluster of amino acids on the hemagluttinin protein, which the flu virus uses to enter cells and infect the host. That target gives them a potential key to treating or preventing all flu strains, coming up with a drug that the virus won't be able to mutate away from--a key problem with today's vaccines. And Brugger emphasized that this antibody approach is not a vaccine.

That's the kind of big idea that the Gates Foundation likes to support. And Brugger says the startup has a clear shot at gaining some of the nondilutive federal support available for companies offering a possible protection against pandemics.

- here's the press release

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