Ocular Therapeutix Grabs $14M in New Round for Eye Therapies

2/3/11

Ocular Therapeutix has found a new investor and a fresh round of capital to advance its hydrogel-based treatments for the eye, CEO Amar Sawhney told me yesterday. The Bedford, MA-based startup is raising $14 million in a Series D round of venture capital.

Ascension Health Ventures, the investment unit of the largest Catholic hospital chain in the country, Ascension Health, is the new investor in Ocular’s fourth round of financing. The round also includes previous investors, including Polaris Venture Partners, SV Life Sciences, and Versant Ventures. The 35-person company has now raised $41.2 million from investors.

Last month Ocular, formerly known as I-Therapeutix, took in $6 million from its previous backers as part of its third-round financing. Now with about $20 million in fresh capital from that raise and its latest round, the company has some ambitious plans to advance its hydrogel-based drug delivery products into mid-stage clinical trials for pink eye and glaucoma as well as to begin a human study that the FDA is requiring the firm to do in order to gain U.S. market approval for a hydrogel eye bandage that’s been approved in Europe since early 2009, Sawhney said.

To deliver drugs to the eye, Ocular has developed tiny plugs that are inserted into the tear ducts. The plugs are designed to release treatments over a period of weeks or months without the patient having to remember to take his medicine. They are also made mostly of hydrogel, a synthetic polymer that is supposed to be completely absorbed over time with minimal discomfort to the patient, according to Sawhney. The firm plans to begin Phase II clinical trials of its treatments for conjunctivitis, or pink eye, as well as one for glaucoma this year and begin to show data from the trials at the end of 2011.

In October, the company reported promising data from a 10-patient, initial clinical study in which its plugs delivered a commonly used antibiotic called moxifloxacin to kill the bacteria that cause some pink eye infections. The patients in the study received the treatment after cataract surgeries. There were no adverse events reported or discomfort as a result of the firm’s therapy, according to Ocular. The next trials will offer more data on how well the firm’s therapies treat eye conditions in larger pools of patients.

Ocular, founded in 2006, is also developing the same technology to deliver treatments for dry eye and allergies, though those programs are in earlier stages of research.

Existing methods to get treatments onto the eye such as drops typically don’t last very long and require patients to remember to apply them to get the desired effects. The tear duct inserts might be able to overcome those challenges. But Ocular isn’t alone in this game. Vancouver-based QLT is in mid-stage development of tear duct plugs that offer sustained release of drugs for eye illness such as pink eye and glaucoma, for example. Sawhney said that his firm’s technology might be able to provide better comfort, retention in the eye, and greater drug loading than silicon-based plugs like those under development at QLT.

As I’ve previously reported, Sawhney has prior success in other applications of the same hydrogel technology. His previous company Confluent Surgical, where he developed hydrogel sealant for cranial and spine surgeries, was acquired by healthcare products powerhouse Covidien (NYSE:COV) in 2006 for $245 million. Covidien now markets the FDA-approved product under the brand name “DuraSeal.”

Sawhney and his partners have founded Ocular Therapeutics, Confluent Surgical, and more recently Waltham-based Augmenix to commercialize the same basic hydrogel technology for different markets. Ascension Health Ventures, the newest investor in Ocular, has backed Sawhney previously at both Confluent and Augmenix.

We’ll see whether Ascension’s confidence in Sawhney and his versatile technology pay off this time.

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