Termeer helps Aura bag $21M to mount a nanosized attack on eye cancers

Henri Termeer

Upstart cancer drug developer Aura Biosciences has rounded up $21 million for its Series B, attracting a large group of backers and keeping former Genzyme CEO and ubiquitous biotech investor Henri Termeer in the game.

Termeer followed up his ground-floor investment in the biotech to add another personal bet on Aura, along with another existing investor, LI-COR Biosciences, which also provided the payload Aura is working with. But there's plenty of new money included in this round. Advent Life Sciences led the gamble, with participation from Chiesi Ventures, Ysios Capital and Alexandria Venture Investments.

Aura has been working on developing nanosized particles engineered to look like a virus, but without any viral DNA. The big idea here was to design a delivery vehicle that can target specific cancer cells and drop a conjugated cancer-killing agent as a targeted payload that can blast the disease.

The technology came out of Dr. John Schiller's lab at the National Cancer Institute, where investigators will spearhead an upcoming Phase I/II study.

"We're going to start at the end of the year," CEO Elisabet de los Pinos tells FierceBiotech. This first clinical study for the company is designed to provide some clear efficacy and safety data from 24 patients, wrapping in September of 2016. The new money allows Aura to expand its team from 10 to 16 and move on to the threshold of a pivotal study, which could get them to an FDA marketing decision in 2019.

Aura's R&D strategy is to target rare, life-threatening cancers, starting with ocular cancers, including ocular melanoma. But the CEO isn't saying right now exactly what the first clinical target will be. The strategy works well with ocular cancers, she adds, saying that they have already demonstrated in animal models that they can get a good distribution to tumors. A laser is required to activate the therapy, allowing for a very precise focus that leaves healthy tissue undisturbed--a requirement when you're treating an organ like the eye.

The CEO got started in an incubator back in the lean-and-mean days of 2009, scraping together $3 million in support to get started with its work. She had an early supporter and mentor in Termeer, who's helped bring in some experienced talent from his extensive connections at Genzyme. Along with the new money, former Genzyme COO Alison Lawton is joining Aura as its new COO. And former Genzyme exec Peter Wirth already sits on the board.

"With Aura's technology, once the product is confirmed in the clinic, patients with rare ocular cancers will have for the first time and in the near future a non-invasive targeted therapy available to them," Termeer said about Aura in a statement.

Termeer has been a busy biotech player in the years since Sanofi ($SNY) engineered a $20 billion buyout of Genzyme, leaving the longtime industry exec a multimillion-dollar windfall to play with. He co-founded Lysosomal Therapeutics with Bob Carpenter, another Genzyme vet and chairman of Hydra Biosciences. He backed the Dutch biotech ProQR. And he sits on the boards at Moderna, which has been raising vast sums, and Aveo, which is trying now to mount a comeback.

- read the announcement

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