With New Funding, Avelas Moves Closer to a Color-Coded Map of Cancer

1/9/14Follow @bvbigelow

San Diego’s Avelas Biosciences says today it has closed on $6.85 million in Series B financing to advance the use of fluorescing peptides that can be used during breast cancer surgery to illuminate cancerous tissue.

The new round brings the startup’s total funding to about $14 million since 2009, when Avelas was founded by Roger Tsien, a Noble laureate at UC San Diego, and Kevin Kinsella of San Diego’s Avalon Ventures. Avalon, which provided initial funding, was joined in the latest round by new investors Torrey Pines Investment, WuXi AppTec, and an unnamed investor.

Avelas will use the capital to move its lead molecule, AVB-620, through a number of “first-in-patient” cases needed to show proof-of-concept, said Avelas CEO Carmine Stengone in a recent phone interview. The company is moving rapidly toward a big inflection point in terms of gathering the necessary data, Stengone said. “The goal is to have our IND [Investigational New Drug application] on file by mid-year.” First-in-patient cases could be done after that, with data expected sometime in 2015.

Stengone also serves as CEO of the reconstituted Afraxis, an Avalon portfolio company with technology to assess the effectiveness of potential drug compounds in disorders of the central nervous system. It is operating more as a service business, however, and Stengone said he plans to spend the “vast majority” of his time at Avelas.

UC San Diego’s Tsien, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, opened the door for the technology now under development at Avelas by showing how fluorescing peptides could be used to illuminate the increased activity of enzymes called proteases. Protease activity is high in tumor and metastases, so a peptide that glows in the presence of high protease activity could be used to illuminate cancerous tissue. When used with a fluorescence imaging camera system during surgery, the technology would provide a color-coded map of the cancer, enabling surgeons a way to immediately differentiate healthy tissue from cancer tissue.

Under current treatment standards, tissue around a primary breast tumor is biopsied when the tumor is removed, and the samples are sent to pathology for analysis. But the analysis takes time, and often requires a follow-up surgery—a process that exposes the patient to additional surgical risk and cost.

Avelas says the accuracy of its AVB-620 molecule is better than 95 percent in pre-clinical studies using living tissue. A similar approach using genetically engineered peptides is under development at Seattle’s Blaze Bioscience, which raised $9 million last month.

“AVB-620 will enable surgeons to identify cancerous tissue during the surgical procedure, addressing a key unmet need in the oncologic surgery space,” Stengone says in a statement the company released today. “This capability will allow surgeons to make real-time decisions that will improve patient treatment and lead to significant cost savings by reducing surgical time and the number of re-operations.”

In its statement, Avelas also named Stengone and Nikolay Savchuk, the managing director at Torrey Pines Investment, to the Avelas board of directors.

Jay Lichter, an Avalon managing partner who served previously as the CEO at Avelas, was named board chairman. The statement also noted that Kinsella and Timothy Scott, the president and co-founder of the San Diego CRO Pharmatek Laboratories, will continue as board members.

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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