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Excaliard, an Isis Spinoff With Anti-Scarring Drug, Marches Ahead in Clinical Trials

Isis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ISIS) likes to talk about how its gene-silencing technology known as antisense creates so many innovative ideas for new drugs that it can’t commercialize them all itself, so it spins a few off into what CEO Stanley Crooke calls “satellite companies.” One of the more interesting ideas orbiting around Isis in Carlsbad, CA is a startup called Excaliard Pharmaceuticals.

This company is the brainchild of Nick Dean, who spent 13 years at Isis, including a stint as vice president of functional genomics and oncology before he became the founder and chief scientist of Excaliard in 2006. The idea was to take one of the most intriguing projects on the back burner at Isis—a new drug that could curb excess skin scarring—and make it the foundation for a new company.

“It was a bit of a skunk works thing, that people worked on after hours, on weekends, or with academic collaborators,” Dean says. “It never quite made the cut at Isis, because the company was focused on cardiovascular disease and metabolic disease.”

But Excaliard found a receptive audience two years ago from Alta Partners, ProQuest Investments, and RiverVest Ventures, who pumped $15.5 million in Series A financing into the company. Two years later, Excaliard is still a virtual company with just four employees, but it has made a lot of progress—it is on track to complete enrollment in its first clinical trial by the end of this year, and start a more rigorous mid-stage trial in the first half of 2010, Dean says.

The concept at Excaliard is to protect the body from excess scarring and fibrosis, Dean said. The Excaliard drugs use antisense technology to silence specific genes that control scar formation and fibrosis at the site of wounds. The company has its eye on developing this as a way to make scars less visible and bumpy, like those from the 1 million Caesarian section births performed each year, knee surgeries, and reconstructive plastic surgeries. It could also be used for some rarer dermatology conditions like hypertrophic scars that are red, raised, itchy and swollen, or keloids, that are large and raised above the skin like a benign tumor.

Dean was intrigued partly by the science, and partly by the market opportunity. The science is built on increasing knowledge of genes that control pathological scar formation, as well as proprietary compounds that Excaliard says can be delivered in a localized part of the body to curb that excessive scarring.

From a business standpoint, this is an untapped market, with no real effective therapy approved by the FDA that works the same way. Patients get by with lotions, creams, or corticosteroids that control swelling but don’t really fix the root of the problem. Any drug like Excaliard’s … Next Page »

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