Surface Logix got a new CEO on board last fall, and five months later it has nailed down a load of new cash. The Brighton, MA-based biotech company, which uses an unusual chemical trick to treat obesity and diabetes, has secured $20 million to see if it can prove its experimental drugs work in human beings.
The Series E financing, being announced today, is coming in the form of $15 million in venture capital and a $5 million loan. The equity backers include Arch Venture Partners, HBM BioVentures, Healthcare Focus, Intel Capital, Saudi Venture Development, Unilever Technology Ventures, and Venrock Associates. The venture loan comes from Silicon Valley Bank.
This shot of cash comes less than six months into the tenure of Surface Logix’s new CEO Keith Dionne. He sold his previous company, Cambridge, MA-based Alantos Pharmaceuticals, to Amgen for $300 million. His new mission will be to lead this venture through a critical proving ground, pushing its top drug candidate through a pair of clinical trials for obesity and diabetes that should yield results by the end of the year. If the investors’ hunch is right, Surface Logix will be able to show its chemists have made the first drug that can block fat from being absorbed in the body, without causing the sort of liver-damaging side effects that plagued similar efforts at drug giants like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. The prize for anyone who comes up with a truly effective and safe obesity drug is huge—about two-thirds of Americans are estimated to be overweight or obese.
“These are darn good programs,” Dionne says. “These are big markets, the drugs are novel, no one’s done it before, and they’re wholly owned by the company.”
Surface Logix, which has about 35 employees, got its start in 2001 with technology from the prolific Harvard University chemistry lab of George Whitesides. The idea is that if medicinal chemists could borrow some of the techniques from their relatives in physical chemistry, by modifying the surface of conventional small-molecule oral drugs, they might be able to better control how drugs interact with proteins the drugs need to block in the body, Dionne says.
The lead drug candidate that will test this idea is SLX-4090. This oral drug is designed to block something called the microsomal triglyceride transfer protein (MTP). This protein, found in the cells that line the intestines, has the important job of helping transport fatty cholesterols, triglycerides, and other nutrients so they get absorbed from the gut into the body, where, sadly, the fat often gets stored. Scientists have tried blocking this critical gateway protein before with small-molecule drugs, but the problem was that the drug got absorbed throughout the bloodstream, and ended up trapping too much fat in the liver where the drug gets broken down, Dionne says. This caused all sorts of worrisome liver damage, like cirrhosis. “It was unacceptable,” Dionne says.
Surface Logix thinks it has a better idea, because its drug will never travel to the liver. This compound has a modified surface designed to let it block MTP, but that keeps it from being absorbed into the lymphatic system and bloodstream. That means, in theory, that the drug binds with MTP, and sits there on the inner intestinal lining, absorbing cholesterol and fat. Eventually, the cells on the intestinal lining should get so bloated that they die off after the usual four or five days and end up leaving the body through the feces, Dionne says.
Roche has already introduced a drug that blocks fat absorption called orlistat, which is marketed via prescription as Xenical and over-the-counter as Alli (it’s been pitched lately on TV by Wynona Judd). The big side effects with this product are pretty predictable—urgent bowel movements, more frequent bowel movements, oily stools. So why wouldn’t Surface Logix’s drug cause those same kind of effects, which keep orlistat from becoming a blockbuster drug?
The best answer Dionne had was that Surface Logix hasn’t seen that kind of diarrhea or oily stool effect from its drug, after experience with more than 180 patients. The more scientific answer he offered is that Roche’s drug blocks long fatty acids—larger molecules that embed in the intestines—while the Surface Logix drug blocks smaller triglycerides that apparently don’t cause as much bowel movement.
A big test will be in the Phase IIb clinical trial of 135 patients that Surface Logix started in January, which will measure how much patients’ cholesterol goes down, and look at how much weight patients lose, after taking the drug for about three months. A second trial of the same drug will examine whether blocking these triglycerides can have a positive effect on diabetes, Dionne says. Once that data arrives by the end of 2009, then the story could get more interesting for potential partners. “Once we generate the data, we’ll evaluate the options,” Dionne says.
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