Kala Funnels $6.2M Into New Drugs for Eye and Lung Diseases

3/19/12Follow @arleneweintraub

Mucus may be the butt of many a second grader’s jokes, but it actually plays a vital biological role—protecting our organs from harmful foreign particles by trapping them and shuttling them out of the body. Sometimes, though, mucus itself becomes the problem. In the lung disease cystic fibrosis, for example, super-thick mucus impedes breathing and causes infections. And the mucus in the eye is so dense that getting medications through it is nearly impossible.

Those are some of the problems Waltham, MA-based startup Kala Pharmaceuticals plans to tackle with the funding it announced last week. Kala, which has been in stealth mode since it was founded in early 2010, raised $6.2 million in equity financing from Lux Capital, Polaris Venture Partners, Third Rock Ventures, and Lighthouse Capital Partners. That brought the total seed funding raised by the startup to $11.2 million. The company was co-founded by MIT professor and prolific entrepreneur, Robert Langer (also one of our Xconomists).

The technology behind Kala originated in the lab of Justin Hanes, a former graduate student in Langer’s lab who went on to Johns Hopkins, where he is now a professor and director of the medical school’s Center for Nanomedicine. Several years ago, Hanes and a colleague started studying the mechanisms by which viruses are able to break through mucus barriers. They focused on the surfaces of the viral particles, discovering specific characteristics that cause viruses to interact differently with mucus than other foreign invaders do.

Kala took that know-how and used it to develop particles with specialized coatings that allow them to bust through mucus, says Colin Gardner, a veteran of Merck and Johnson & Johnson who is serving as an advisor to Kala. “We can modify the surface of the particles so that they penetrate the mucus and then stay there and release the drug over an extended period of time,” Gardner says.

Langer says that even though the technology didn’t emerge directly from his lab, he was sure enough of its potential therapeutic value that he co-founded the company and took a board seat. “This is a totally untapped area—nobody has figured this out before,” Langer says. “If you can get through the mucus barrier, you can hit some important targets.”

One of Kala’s priorities is to try to develop medications that can penetrate the thick mucus that forms in cystic fibrosis patients. Kevin Pojasek, Kala’s vice president for corporate development, says the startup’s scientists actually tested their particles in mucus samples from patients. “When you compare that mucus to normal, healthy mucus it’s almost like rubber,” says Pojasek, who has worked at several biotech startups, including Satori Pharmaceuticals and Solace Pharmaceuticals. Kala’s experiments, he adds, “gave us confidence that we can use our technology to address this challenging clinical problem.”

Kala received a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a unit of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to develop an inhaled treatment … Next Page »

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