Vega Therapeutics, With Roots in Michigan and San Diego, Aims High in Fight Against Diabetes

10/4/10Follow @xconomy

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phases of synthesizing small molecule candidates against this target, so it can start screening the best ones for further tests.

Vega also has a second target in mind that’s believed to play a similar role in inflammation and insulin resistance. It’s GPR120, a protein receptor that binds with Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3′s, best known for being one of the good things that come from eating fish, are known to have anti-inflammatory effects. The UC San Diego group recently published work in Cell showing that when they stimulated GPR120 in mice, they saw a broad anti-inflammatory effect and improved insulin sensitivity.

A handful of academic labs are working in the field, but I didn’t get the sense that any Big Pharma companies are making a serious push in making drugs against these same targets. Cambridge, MA-based Catabasis Pharmaceuticals, is developing drugs based on the anti-inflammatory properties of Omega-3 fatty acids, but they are made to work differently than Vega’s, Parker says.

I wondered whether it’s wise to try to make a single drug against a single target when inflammation is a complex process governed by multiple biological pathways. No one on the Vega team dismissed the question—no one can really say for sure that concern is wrong until future experiments prove otherwise.

So far, Scarlett and Parker have been financing the company, along with one other angel investor, Scarlett says. Saltiel, while still on faculty at U-M, has been spending a lot of time helping the company get started, and he was even at the Oyster Point Boulevard office when I stopped by for the interview.

The plan is to raise venture capital this fall, to start pushing ahead with the long slog of drug development. Synthesizing drug candidates, screening the best ones, running them through animal tests are all on the agenda. It’s the fundamental stuff that takes a long time and a healthy appetite for risk that many biotech VCs just aren’t willing to stomach these days. Scarlett has been around long enough to see more than a couple cycles in biotech like this before, and he says he’s confident that it’s a good time in 2010 to be starting a discovery stage biotech.

“Craig and I both believe strongly there has never been a better time to start a discovery-based company,” Scarlett says. “Most people would look at us like we have antlers on when we say that. But I do think it’s a great time, because there have been relatively few discovery-based companies, certainly in diabetes, started in the last few years. And the science Alan and Jerry have come up with is quite amazing. If this has happened in 2000, there would be five new companies working on inflammation and diabetes and they’d all be funded to the tune of about $200 million or so by now.”

He adds: “All things go in cycles. By the time the rest of the industry gets revved up and interested in this kind of work, I’d hope that we’ll be there with some answers.”

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