Heavyweight Hydrogen Takes $37 Million Prize for Concert Pharmaceuticals

5/1/08

Concert Pharmaceuticals may have found a way to help established drug substances pack a better punch. By substituting a few normal hydrogen atoms with the heavier form, deuterium, the company believes it is possible to create new chemical entities with greater efficacy and fewer side effects. And since these entities are based on proven drugs, the reasoning goes, it will probably take less time and money to take them to the market.

The logic must have landed a blow with investors, because Concert yesterday announced it had raised $37 million in one of this year’s biggest Series C rounds in New England biotech. The financing was led by a “leading public equity investor,” according to the company’s press release, and joined by new investors Adage Capital Management, SR One, Mediphase Venture Partners, and Westfield Capital Management, as well as existing investors including Three Arch Partners, TVM Capital, Skyline Ventures, Brookside Capital Partners Fund, Flagship Ventures, Greylock Partners, New Leaf Venture Partners, and QVT Fund.

“The basic idea is very simple, which is one of the reasons it has been received so well,” Concert founder and CEO Roger Tung told me when I met him yesterday at the firm’s headquarters in Lexington, MA. “We start with successful compounds, some of these rare entities that have been proven to have a good balance between safety and efficacy in humans. Most of these are drugs that are currently on the market. By replacing certain hydrogen atoms with deuterium atoms, we change the way the drug is taken up and metabolized in the body.” So far, the company has filed over 100 patent applications for new drug candidates based on the deuterium approach.

Tung has a background in pharmacological chemistry and has worked in a number of pharma companies, including Vertex Pharmaceuticals, where he was a founding scientist. “After I left Vertex, when I set up as an independent scientist and consultant, I thought about the reducing the risk in creating new drugs. The idea of using deuterium came when I was typing on my computer,” he said. “The first thing I did was to go to the patent office’s website and see if it was possible to patent deuterium-containing compounds. There was a number of issued patents, not only in drugs but also in optical materials, polymers, and electronics. So it is accepted that deuterium and naturally occurring hydrogen are different compositions of matter.” This means that even if an existing drug still has patent protection, a new deuterium variety is regarded as a new different substance and therefore patentable on its own.

Deuterium is a naturally occurring element—in fact most of us have roughly one gram of it in our bodies. It is best known as a component of heavy water, which is distilled from seawater and used in certain types of nuclear reactors. (Some of you might remember the old Kirk Douglas movie Heroes of Telemark, about Norwegian resistance fighters trying to blow up the heavy water-distillery in Rjukan, to stop Germany from getting hold of heavy water for their atom bomb project.)

Tung founded Concert in April 2006, together with Rich Aldrich of RA Capital and Christoph Westphal, also known as cofounder of local heavyweights Alnylam and Sirtris, which was bought by GlaxoSmithKline last week for a whopping $720 million. With three financing rounds totally roughly $95 million now under its belt and its first compound (a treatment for hot flashes) about to enter clinical trials, Concert could be a real contender.

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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