Hold onto your lab coats and safety goggles. Big drug companies and venture firms are engaging in a scientific land grab in the Boston area and beyond to gain rights to new discoveries about what are known as adaptive immune responses. They’re jockeying for the best technology and help from top brains at Harvard, MIT, and local biotech startups.
London-based drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) formed the biotech startup Tempero Pharmaceuticals in March 2009 to stake its claim in this emerging area of immunology. Last week, Tempero CEO Spiros Jamas gave me a rare tour of his firm’s headquarters and labs in Kendall Square (including the foosball table) as well as a run-down of its founders’ discoveries—which shed new light on why some peoples’ immune systems mount dangerous attacks on healthy tissues in autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Tempero, which is solely funded by Glaxo so far, is playing for keeps. It’s got a trio scientific founders—Christophe Benoist, Vijay Kuchroo, and Diane Mathis—who are Harvard professors regarded as top minds in immunology. The firm has also recruited two of Boston’s biggest names in biotech—Rich Aldrich, a life sciences investor who was a founding executive of Cambridge, MA-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:VRTX), and John Maraganore, the CEO of Cambridge-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:ALNY)—to serve as Tempero’s independent directors.
Jamas told me about what prompted Glaxo to form Tempero, rather than pursuing its technology internally. “There was a realization that a lot of the basic science in this space was driven by academic thought leaders,” Jamas said. “And a lot of them were being pursued by venture capital groups or other companies, so there was a competition. In order to attract the academic experts, and build a group quickly, the decision was made that this was a ripe opportunity to set this up as an independent company with a biotech model.”
Tempero’s academic founders are pioneering researchers of certain immune cells with recently discovered roles in regulating immune responses. For example, Harvard’s Kuchroo has studied how certain helper T cells (known as Th17 cells) are responsible for the immune system’s attacks on healthy tissue. Also, Benoist and Mathis have researched the role of regulatory T cells (called Tregs) to help stabilize the immune system and prevent it from beating up on healthy tissue.
Tempero is in the early stages of researching potential small molecule drugs that block the sometimes-hazardous Th17 cells, as well as drugs that stimulate beneficial Treg cell activity. This could lead to improved treatments for autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and Type 1 diabetes, among other diseases. The key would be to make drugs that are highly targeted in order to block hazardous immune activity while maintaining healthy immune functions that prevent infection and attack other invaders in our bodies.
Ironically, Tempero shares the sixth floor of 200 Technology Square with one of its Big Pharma competitors in this field, Novartis, which houses a part of its Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in the building. Swiss drug giant Novartis is developing an antibody drug that is intended to stymie certain activities of Th17 cells in order to treat the autoimmune eye disease uveitis.
There are several more groups in Boston who are tackling this field. Cambridge-based biotech startup Peptimmune, a spin-off of Cambridge-based biotech giant Genzyme (NASDAQ:GENZ), is in early-stage development of a peptide drug to boost Treg cell activity to treat autoimmune diseases such as MS, Crohn’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis, according to its website. In January 2009, Novartis grabbed an option from Peptimmune to gain an exclusive license to the drug.
Where there’s interest from Big Pharma, there are typically venture capitalists in the mix. Marking their own territory in this field, Boston-based Third Rock Ventures and Flagship Ventures of Cambridge have pumped $35 million into a Series A financing for Cambridge-based biotech startup Eleven Biotherapeutics, which wants to develop protein drugs that target Th17 cells. (Eleven’s founding group features scientists from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Alabama.) Also, Cambridge-based Clarus Ventures has been backing a startup in this field, Plymouth, MI-based Lycera, which also happens to operate a lab in a building next door to Tempero.
Tempero plans to decide on whether to raise cash from venture capitalists or other outside investors next year. Alnylam’s Maraganore, a Tempero director, said that there are venture investors who are interested in buying a piece of the startup. Already, the firm’s board features Aldrich, who is a co-founder of Longwood Founders Fund, a Boston-based venture firm focused on early-stage biotech investments.
“If Glaxo likes the way the company is going, Glaxo’s going to buy it back,” Maraganore said, repeating what Jamas had previously noted about the startup’s understanding with the drug giant. “That’s an exit which is very attractive to venture capitalists.”
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