Accelerator Bankrolls New Company, Mirina, To Develop MicroRNA-Blocking Drugs
Accelerator’s latest big idea is coming in a micro-sized package. The Seattle-based biotech startup machine, affiliated with Leroy Hood’s Institute for Systems Biology, has formed a new company called Mirina to develop so-called microRNA drugs.
The new company is backed by the usual crew of investors in Accelerator, namely Alexandria Real Estate Equities (NYSE: ARE), Amgen Ventures, Arch Venture Partners, OVP Venture Partners, and WRF Capital. The technology comes in an exclusive license from a company strictly focused on diagnostics, San Diego-based Nanogen (NASDAQ: NGEN). Nanogen will keep an equity stake in Mirina representing “less than 20 percent,” of the company’s shares, and stands to receive milestone payments and royalties on sales if Mirina achieves certain goals in the future, says David Schubert, Accelerator’s chief business officer.
The exact dollar amount being funneled into Mirina isn’t being disclosed, yet it is within the $1.6 million to $5 million range Accelerator typically invests in startup companies, says Accelerator president (and Xconomist) Carl Weissman. Research and development at the company will be run by David McElligott, a 10-year veteran of drug discovery at Bothell, WA-based Icos. McElligott was brought in because of his connection to a pair of former colleagues at Icos—Merl Hoekstra, who went on to be a vice president of business development at Nanogen, and Patrick Gray, now Accelerator’s executive scientific director.
“We’re very excited about this, but we don’t do anything unless we’re really excited about it,” Schubert says.
A little science is required to get a feel for what’s special here. MicroRNAs are tiny molecules discovered in recent years to have potential to control networks of genes. Nanogen’s Minor Groove Binder technology, already used in commercial diagnostics, is thought to have potential here. The Nanogen technique should make drugs that have enhanced binding properties with specific strands of DNA or RNA, which could make them more selective for targets or more potent than standard drugs—meaning they could do a better job at a lower dose. Mirina hasn’t settled on which diseases to treat first, although cancer, infectious diseases, and metabolic disorders are all possibilities, Schubert says.
The deal came to Accelerator’s attention more than a year ago, through a tip from Hoekstra and Walt Mahoney, Nanogen’s vice president of R&D. The scientific literature then, and now, has been teeming with papers on the potential for microRNA drugs. While Accelerator combed through the intellectual property and negotiated deal terms, another microRNA company made headlines. Last September, Cambridge, MA-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY) and Carlsbad, CA-based Isis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ISIS) made waves when they spun off some of their intellectual property into a microRNA joint venture called Regulus Therapeutics. Seven months later, Regulus scored a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline worth $20 million upfront to develop drugs aimed at microRNAs that play a role in inflammatory diseases.
Mirina will have the same kind of potential to do partnerships with big drug companies if it continues to advance, Weissman says.
The announcement of Mirina, the ninth company to emerge at Accelerator since its founding in 2003, represents the first time Accelerator has licensed technology from a publicly-traded corporation. It took more lawyering to make it happen than a deal with a university tech transfer office, but Weissman and Schubert insist it is worth the effort. “No one has enough money to pursue everything,” Schubert says, so a lot of companies have promising projects that end up sitting on the shelf, which could be put to the test at Accelerator.
As Nanogen CEO Howard Birndorf put it in a prepared statement, extending its microRNA technology to drugs “is in keeping with our mission to improve patient care, and will provide the company with new opportunities for revenues from non-competing markets.” That obviously beats sitting on a shelf, or possibly accumulating a lot of red ink on Nanogen’s quarterly income statement.