San Diego’s Aragon Raises $42 Million, Targets Hormone-Driven Cancers

3/6/12Follow @bvbigelow

Aragon Pharmaceuticals, a San Diego startup targeting hormone-driven cancers, has raised $42 million in a Series C financing led by a new investor, the Topspin Fund, a Long Island, NY-based firm affiliated with the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies.

Aragon CEO Richard Heyman tells me the life sciences startup was founded in 2009 to advance work by Charles Sawyers of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and other researchers who are focused on the role certain hormones and their receptors play in fueling cancer growth. Such hormone-driven cancers are usually treated with anti-hormonal therapies, but often become resistant, leading Sawyers and others to focus on the hormone receptors in these signaling pathways.

Aragon was founded to identify and develop small molecule drugs capable of blocking and even depleting elevated levels of the androgen receptor (AR) and similar receptors. Heyman says the idea of getting rid of the androgen receptors was even carried into naming the company Aragon—as in “AR gone.”

Rich Heyman

Aragon plans to use proceeds of the funding, which comes from existing investors Aisling Capital, OrbiMed Advisors, and The Column Group, to advance its cancer drug development program on two fronts.

On one front, Heyman says Aragon is moving to a mid-stage clinical trial of its lead drug candidate, ARN-509, for patients with a form of cancer known as castration-resistant prostate cancer (CRPC). Such cancers are no longer responsive to treatments that use chemical or surgical means to reduce androgens. Last month, the company presented data from an early stage clinical trial that showed the compound was safe and well tolerated—and also demonstrated some promising anti-tumor activity—in CRPC patients. The company has enrolled 120 patients in the mid-stage trial, and Heyman says the cash infusion will enable Aragon to complete the study and prepare for later-stage studies.

Heyman says the funding also will help Aragon move ahead with preclinical and early stage studies targeting the estrogen receptor in women with breast cancer. A molecule that Aragon has under development not only binds to the estrogen receptor, but also causes it to be degraded, Heyman says.

With the hefty, $42 million round announced today, Aragon says it has raised a total of $72 million since 2009. As Aragon sought to raise its Series C funding, Heyman tells me, “We wanted an investor that had both deep pockets as well as potential links to hedge funds, private equity, or even [help us move toward] an IPO.”

The Topspin Fund should more than satisfy that criteria, Heyman says. It was founded in recent years by Jim Simons, founding CEO of the New York hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, and two other investors, Leo Guthart and Steve Winick.

In a statement from Aragon says, “The addition of an investor like Topspin with a like-minded vision and considerable financial resources strategically provides Aragon with access to significant capital in the future. We are also tremendously excited about the progress we’ve made with our pipeline.”

In conjunction with the financing, Aragon says Topspin’s Guthart will join Aragon’s board. Carol Gallagher, who headed Seattle-based Calistoga Pharmaceuticals before it was acquired last year in a $600 million deal with Gilead Sciences (and a San Diego Xconomist), also is joining Aragon’s board as an independent director.

In Aragon’s statement, Simon is quoted as saying, “The combination of Aragon’s high-quality management team, strong investor base, and its novel insights into two of the most-validated targets in oncology make the company an attractive investment.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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