Meritage Pharma Aims to Develop Drug to Reduce Swelling in the Food Pipe

12/3/08Follow @xconomy

Intense allergic reactions to things like bee stings or peanuts can be life-threatening because some people can suffocate from massive inflammation in the windpipe. But it’s a little-known fact that the same kind of allergic reaction can also cause swelling and narrowing in the food pipe (aka the esophagus). Sometimes it’s so severe that food gets stuck there and needs to be removed in the emergency room.

If Meritage Pharma has sized up this ailment correctly, it may be able to pave the way for a new drug for a little-known disease called eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE). The San Diego-based biotech company is off to a running start, having raised $22.5 million in a Series A financing in March from Domain Associates, Latterell Venture Partners, and The Vertical Group. I learned more about this disease, and Meritage’s experimental drug to treat it, during a visit with CEO Elaine Phillips at the company’s offices (which happen to be just down the hall from Domain).

Meritage (pronounced MARE-uh-tazh) estimates that about 90,000 children and 110,000 adults in the U.S. are diagnosed with this condition in the U.S. each year. Phillips says they generally complain of difficulty in swallowing, chest pain, or heartburn-like symptoms. Sometimes patients get misdiagnosed and put on proton-pump inhibitor drugs like omeprazole (Prilosec), which reduce stomach acid with heartburn. There are no FDA-approved medications specifically for EOE. Meritage’s idea is to develop budesonide, an immune-suppressant commonly used as an inhalable asthma drug, into a thick-liquid formula that will deliver the medicine where it can be most effective in the lining of the throat.

“We’re making it like molasses,” Phillips says.

Actually, Phillips explained, the liquid form of the drug won’t stick in the throat quite like molasses. The drug will be made to coat the throat so it can be easily absorbed by the mucus lining of the esophagus.

This program is still in the early stages of development. The drug is scheduled to enter its initial human clinical trial, a placebo-controlled study of 80 children, by the end of this year. Some early work was done at San Diego-based Verus Pharmaceuticals, which spun budesonide off to Meritage back in March. The new company reunites a quartet of executives who previously worked together at Verus. The Meritage team includes chairman Cam Garner, Phillips as CEO, … Next Page »

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  • http://www.pnlifesciences.com Shirley Chow

    For anyone following Meritage’s story and work in EoE, the company announced today that it has officially began dosing patients for their Phase 2 trial. See the milestone announcement here: http://tinyurl.com/avga6f