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Metacrine Raises $36M in VC Funding, Focuses on Metabolic Diseases

Xconomy San Diego — 

Metacrine, a new San Diego biotech, says today it has raised $36 million in Series A financing to advance two new classes of drugs that could be used to help control chronic liver disease and related metabolic diseases and disorders.

Metacrine was founded with technology licensed from the Salk Institute, where discoveries by Ron Evans, who heads the institute’s Gene Expression Laboratory, and colleague Michael Downes have identified new endocrine signaling pathways. Metacrine intends to develop two classes of drug candidates that target diabetes, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and related metabolic diseases and disorders.

Scientists Michael Downes, Ron Evans, and Jae Myou

(From left) Michael Downes, Ron Evans, and Jae Myou (photo courtesy Salk Institute)

Evans and Downes co-founded Metacrine, along with Rich Heyman, a former postdoc in Evans’s lab now serving as Metacrine’s executive chairman. Evans is known for his scientific discoveries of nuclear receptors and the mechanism of hormone signaling, and has applied his expertise to help develop new treatments in obesity, diabetes, and cancer.  He is serving as a member of Metacrine’s board.

Heyman and Evans are close friends, and Heyman gained some renown for his back-to-back success as the CEO of San Diego’s Aragon Pharmaceuticals (sold to Johnson & Johnson in 2013 for $1 billion) and Seragon Pharmaceuticals (sold last year to Roche’s Genentech for $1.7 billion).

Investors in the round include Arch Venture Partners, EcoR1 Capital, Polaris Partners, and venBio, according to a statement from the company.

The funding should be sufficient to complete pre-clinical work on two programs with mechanistically distinct endocrine pathways, said Metacrine CEO Neil McDonnell, who was previously in charge of cardiovascular and metabolic disease R&D for Takeda in the United States. “It will get us to the point where we should start to see some efficacy data,” McDonnell said yesterday.

The capital also will be used to build out Metacrine’s expertise in biology, metabolic diseases, and protein engineering, McDonnell said. The company currently has 12 employees, including CFO Trisha Millican; Nicholas Smith, a senior vice president for chemistry; and Eric Bischoff, vice president of business operations. All three previously held management positions at Seragon and Aragon.

Raising the Series A round, which is Metacrine’s initial funding, was not difficult, McDonnell said. “For a lot of reasons, there was a lot of interest in what we’re doing,” he said. “I think a lot of that had to do with Ron, and who he is. He’s pretty well-known. Rich also has had some success with Aragon and Seragon. And my network is pretty good too.”

Neil McDonnell

Neil McDonnell

McDonnell, who commutes to work in San Diego from Seattle, said he was recommended to Metacrine’s co-founders by Jerrold Olefsky, a distinguished professor of medicine at UC San Diego who is an expert on insulin resistance as a primary cause of Type 2 diabetes.

At Takeda, McDonnell said, he oversaw R&D programs through FDA approval, and was involved in the development of the diabetes drugs alogliptin (Nesina), alogliptin and pioglitazone (Oseni), and alogliptin and metformin (Kazano)—and with Takeda’s San Diego-based partner, Orexigen Therapeutics (NASDAQ: OREX), the obesity drug bupropion and metformin (Contrave).