Pfizer, Novartis chip in on $17M round for an Atlas upstart focused on pain

The busy partners at Atlas Venture have gathered together a $17 million Series A for their latest biotech creation: Quartet Medicine, which pairs together two scientific founders who have been exploring the frontiers of pain management. This is Atlas' fourth maiden round for one of their biotech launches in a little more than a week, with Cambridge, MA-based Quartet joining Unum, Raze and Bicycle in a rare streak of startups. And there are likely some more to come.

Quartet CEO Kevin Pojasek

This time around the company plans to stay virtual through proof-of-concept data, says CEO Kevin Pojasek, whose last industry gig was in business development for Robert Langer's Kala before he joined Atlas as an entrepreneur-in-residence last year. Novartis Venture Funds, Pfizer Venture Investment and Partners Innovation Fund joined Atlas' syndicate for Quartet.

The focus at Quartet is tetrahydrobiopterin, or BH4, which has been a big focus of attention for Harvard investigator Clifford Woolf for years now. Woolf had done a considerable amount of research on the topic when he founded Solace Pharmaceuticals, publishing a notable paper on the effects of inhibiting BH4 and its potential for controlling chronic pain way back in 2006. But Pojasek notes that while Solace failed after pursuing a different mechanism of action with an in-licensed drug from Sanofi ($SNY), there's been a considerable amount of new work in the BH4 field, particularly by Quartet's other scientific founder, Kai Johnsson of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

"Solace did some interesting work on this," says Pojasek, "but a lot has changed, and that change is what we're trying to capitalize in." Johnsson's lab specializes in developing assays, and he screened out a number of interesting compounds that inhibit BH4.

The big idea here is that levels of BH4 spike when the body is injured. Quartet wants to find a drug that can modulate levels of BH4 without eliminating it--turn it down, so to speak, without turning it off. Their target becomes a clear biomarker for effectiveness of their drug, and an early stage trial could provide clear evidence of whether their drug is hitting the mark on pain. A Phase IIa trial with about 100 patients, he adds, could provide the proof-of-concept data that they need to demonstrate the biotech is on the right track. And Pojasek--who's now building out his core team of 5 or 6 execs along with a supporting cast of consultants--expects to have the make-or-break data in 2017.

Pain has been a devilishly hard field for investigators in recent years, one of the reasons why explorations in the CNS field have slowed considerably. Placebo effects frequently killed earlier experimental therapies in recent years. But early this year, says Pojasek, the FDA came up with some new trial guidelines on pain that should make their task more straightforward. And along the way the company can explore the potential for a buyout or a partnership with companies that are still active in pain--a group that included the pharma giant Pfizer ($PFE).

Atlas has become a prolific company creator in the biotech industry, fostering a covey of some 18 seedlings in its facilities. Bruce Booth is stepping in as chairman of this one, as well as others, and Pojasek will be working closely with a team of experienced hands at Atlas that also includes Michael Gilman, who founded Stromedix and later helped orchestrate a sale of the company to Biogen Idec ($BIIB).