Pharma giant AbbVie backs biotech startup working on oral bowel drug

Avaxia Biologics has added major drugmaker AbbVie to its ranks of investors, which to date have been mostly angel groups. AbbVie ($ABBV) has invested alongside a lineup of angel backers for the biotech startup's $11.4 million Series B financing. The new capital supports an early-stage clinical trial of Avaxia's oral anti-TNF protein therapy for patients with inflammatory bowel disease.  

The latest closing of the second-round financing builds on the $6.4 million B-round money that the company announced in December.

AbbVie has gained only a financial stake in Lexington, MA-based Avaxia through its investment. Yet it's hard to miss the connections between Avaxia's research and the drug giant's best-selling drug, Humira. Humira, which generated a whopping $9.3 billion in 2012 sales, is an injected anti-TNF antibody used for a variety of autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Avaxia wants to use its oral anti-TNF drug to treat colitis, which is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes painful blisters and ulcers in the intestine and has no cure. Thousands of ulcerative colitis patients have taken injections of Humira, which acts against tumor necrosis factor (TNF) proteins to put the brakes on immune activities that lead to inflammation. Yet the drug has to be injected into patients and presents them with an increased risk of infection and other side effects.

Rather than injections, patients swallow Avaxia's AVX-470 and avoid systemic exposure to the treatment, which travels directly to the site of the disease through the digestive tract. Its lead candidate is made with polyclonal antibodies from cow's milk that are spray-dried and put into capsules. The company must show that enough of the protein drug can survive the digestive system to have a therapeutic effect on inflammation in patients' intestines. Avaxia is testing whether this happens in an ongoing Phase Ib study, company CEO and founder Barbara Fox told FierceBiotech. 

AbbVie has gained a seat on Avaxia's board of directors through the financing, which was led by Cherrystone Angels and Golden Seeds. Other new investors include Ariel Southeast Angel Partners and Tech Coast Angels. The longer list of previous backers includes Beacon Angels, Boston Harbor Angels, Mass Medical Angels, Launchpad Venture Group, North Country Angels, the Beta Fund, Granite State Angels, the Keiretsu Forum, Maine Angels and others.

"We're pleased to have AbbVie join our board and engage their expertise in gastroenterology as we advance the development of innovative, gut-targeted therapeutics like AVX-470," Fox stated.  

Just over 5 months since its spinoff from Abbott Laboratories ($ABT), AbbVie has struck a string of deals with biotech companies like Avaxia that are focused on therapies for gastrointestinal (GI) inflammation. AbbVie and Galapagos ($GLPG) expanded a partnership to include research of a drug against Crohn's disease. And Alvine landed $70 million upfront from AbbVie in a deal involving rights to its anti-gluten drug candidate for Celiac disease. If successful in trials, these experimental products would build on its growing Humira-led business for treating GI ailments.

- here's the release

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