Sorbent Therapeutics Seeks to Fight Heart Failure in Unusual Arena: The Gut

7/13/11Follow @xconomy

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raised a whopping $70 million in its Series B venture round last September.

Albrecht left Relypsa in late 2009, and soon started sniffing around VC groups for new opportunities, he says. Knowing Albrecht’s experience with the Ilypsa/Relypsa crew, Jim Healy of Sofinnova Ventures and David Collier of CMEA Ventures encouraged him to take a look at Sorbent. “I was aware of it,” Albrecht says, “But there was no data in public domain, except patents. I didn’t know how good the data was.”

The company, founded in 2005, had developed its polymer to the point where it had made it into clinical trials with about 100 people. It was positioned to get rid of not just potassium, but also sodium and excess fluids, Albrecht says. But there was a problem. Investors didn’t like changes coming to Medicare reimbursement procedures. The new system said dialysis centers could no longer bill the government to reimburse for each new therapy, but were instead given a flat amount from Medicare per patient, which was supposed to cover the patient’s whole regimen. That seemed to put the squeeze on new therapies trying to enter the dialysis world, Albrecht says.

Instead, while Albrecht was scoping out the startup, he wondered if the Sorbent drug might be useful in a less crowded space like heart failure.

The professional opportunity, meanwhile, struck him as interesting—but only to a point. At the time, Sorbent was headquartered in the Chicago area, since it was founded there in 2005 by a group of former executives from Baxter Healthcare. Albrecht, a resident of the Bay Area, said he wasn’t interested in moving to Chicago. So, partly because it was Albrecht’s preference and partly to be closer to the investors and a larger biotech talent pool, Sorbent made its move to the Bay Area a year ago, he says.

Albrecht isn’t saying a whole lot yet publicly about the clinical trial plan, but I did get a sense of the patient population he has in mind. Heart failure, in which the heart muscle enlarges and loses its ability to efficiently pump blood, leads to fluid buildup in the lungs and legs, making people fatigued and chronically short of breath. While many of them can be treated with diuretics to flush the excess fluid out of their system, quite a few can’t be treated effectively because they also have chronic kidney disease. These are the heart failure patients who are the best candidates for a drug like Sorbent’s, which stays entirely within the GI tract, and never needs to go through the kidneys.

“The less the kidneys work, the less the diuretics work,” Albrecht says. “So what often happens is you go to higher diuretic doses, and that leads to increased mortality. It’s a vicious cycle.” Instead, he says, Sorbent’s drug could allow patients to go on a low-dose diuretic, get rid of excess fluids, and stay out of the hospital.

But polymer drugs have their drawbacks. They have traditionally had to be given in lots of pills per day, which is inconvenient for patients, and makes it harder for many to stick with their doctor’s instructions. Albrecht said he didn’t want to discuss yet what kind of dosing requirements Sorbent’s drug will have.

The new shot of cash, Albrecht says, will help the company get through its mid-stage clinical trial of its drug for congestive heart failure patients, Albrecht says. There is also an ongoing, randomized, placebo-controlled study that should yield data early next year, he says. The money should last through the end of 2013, by which time Sorbent ought to know what kind of drug it really has on its hands.

Like everything in biotech, this story will be driven by data. “The degree of relief our product can provide will determine degree of use,” Albrecht says.

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