Hydra Biosciences Raises $22M to Create New Pain Relievers With Fewer Side Effects

1/16/09Follow @xconomy

Hydra Biosciences has been around a long time for a private biotech company with no experimental drugs in clinical trials. Even so, seven years after its founding, the Cambridge, MA-based company has secured a $22 million Series D round of venture capital to develop experimental pain drugs designed to be as powerful as morphine—without the narcotic side effects.

MedImmune Ventures led the round, and was joined by existing investors Advanced Technology Ventures, Abingworth, Polaris Venture Partners, BioVenture Investors, Biogen Idec Ventures, and Lilly Ventures. The company got its start with a $10 million Series A round back in 2002, and now has raised $69 million total since its beginning, says CEO Russell Herndon.

The fuss is about Hydra’s techniques for blocking, or possibly stimulating, targets on cells with a mouthful of a name—Transient Receptor Potential (TRP) ion channels. About one-seventh of the world’s pharmaceutical sales come from drugs that block ion channels on cells, like calcium-channel blockers that lower blood pressure. The problem with most ion channels is that one that might be a good drug target is often structurally similar to another ion channel on healthy cells. That means a drug that blocks one ion channel is likely to hit all sorts of healthy cells and cause side effects, Herndon says.

Hydra is learning that the TRP family is more structurally distinct, and the company says its animal experiments have shown it has been able to synthesize drug candidates that can be designed to exquisitely hit the targets while avoiding markers on cells that resemble them. This new understanding of biology should pave the way for an experimental pain drug with the power of morphine, that doesn’t cause constipation, euphoria, or addiction, he says. If these ideas are proven with pain meds, then researchers will try to duplicate the feat for other huge pharmaceutical markets—high blood pressure, lung diseases like asthma, and central nervous system disorders, Herndon says.

“There really continues to be great excitement around this field and our leadership in it,” Herndon says. “We’ve brought in some strategic investors, like MedImmune Venture, Biogen Idec and Lilly who want to keep their finger on the pulse.”

Herndon, a former president of Lexington, MA-based Antigenics and president of Genzyme’s tissue repair unit, came to Hydra in January 2006. The company signed a partnership with Pfizer, the world’s largest drugmaker, a year later to co-develop its TRP programs, although that collaboration has ended as Pfizer shifted its focus to late-stage development, Herndon says.

Assuming Hydra can spend its new money wisely, Hydra hopes to generate new partnerships with Big Pharma to advance this line of work, Herndon says. The latest venture round is supposed to build value by helping Hydra push its first drug candidate into initial clinical trials in the second half of this year to block a target called TRPA1, Herndon says. Down the road, the company has plans to test that drug, a conventional small-molecule chemical compound, for post-surgical pain, inflammatory pain, and possibly nerve pain, he says.

A second small-molecule candidate aimed at a target called TRPV3 is being prepped to follow shortly thereafter in clinical trials in 2010, he says. That one will be aimed at chronic pain conditions like lower back pain, osteoarthritis, or rheumatoid arthritis, he says.

“Hydra Biosciences’ strong management team and expertise in TRP ion channel receptor drug discovery has the potential to create first-in-class drugs for significant diseases, such as pain, inflammation and pulmonary disease,” said Maggie Flanagan LeFlore, managing director of MedImmune Ventures, in a statement.

Hydra has morphed through the years into a company with 40 employees that concentrate 100 percent on the TRP ion channel biology work, Herndon says. When the company got started, it concentrated on a program to make small-molecule drugs to stimulate regeneration of damaged heart muscle. Three years ago, Hydra scrapped that heart regeneration program to consolidate its bet on TRP ion channels.

“The real near-term value drive, in terms of time it takes to get to the market quickly, was in the ion channel space,” Herndon says. “We are the only company 100 percent focused on TRPs, and we are world leaders in this biology.”

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