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Spaltudaq Harnessing Mother Nature’s Wisdom to Make Better Drugs For Infections

Spaltudaq has never really said a whole lot publicly about what it’s doing. So I was eager to get an update this week from CEO David Fanning about what’s percolating at the Seattle biotech company, particularly since he’s just down the hall from Xconomy’s Seattle office on First Hill.

The basic idea hasn’t changed much since Spaltudaq got started in 2005 as one of the early companies born at Accelerator, the biotech incubator affiliated with the Institute for Systems Biology. Spaltudaq’s scientists look at blood or tissue samples from patients, and identify antibodies that are made by people’s immune systems against foreign invaders like viruses, bacteria, or cancer cells. Mother Nature has evolved pretty efficient defense mechanisms against these troublemakers, so it seems like a good idea to sort through critical antibodies with broad potential uses, and make genetically engineered copies of them as drugs. It was compelling enough for the company to raise $29 million in March 2007 from Arch Venture Partners, Canaan Partners, HealthCare Ventures, Amgen Ventures, MPM Capital, and Alexandria Real Estate Equities.

Originally, Spaltudaq looked at developing antibodies for cancer. Then, a realization hit. “Choosing cancer is like choosing Mt. Everest for your first mountain climbing class,” Fanning says. So Spaltudaq has broadened its efforts to include infectious diseases and autoimmune diseases.

Fanning spent most of his time in the interview talking about infectious diseases. Spaltudaq’s scientists are looking for clues in tissue samples from rare individuals who have developed “universally relevant and effective” antibodies, he says. He’s thinking of individuals who survived exposure to the wicked Ebola virus, or those infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa who somehow never get sick, possibly because they developed certain antibodies to keep the virus in check. Such antibodies for influenza, if turned into a drug, could be stockpiled as a backup treatment in case of a pandemic. The company has two antibody candidates for flu, which have been able to protect animals from getting the virus after being directly exposed to seasonal flu, or bird flu, Fanning says.

None of the programs have advanced far enough yet to reach clinical trials. Fanning, a former chief operating officer of Seattle-based Corixa, got plenty of experience there in doing deals to keep research and development alive through the long years needed to show a drug works. He wants to do it again. “We’re reasonably confident we’ll see partnerships in place in six months,” he says.

One totally extraneous point. Since I get asked this a fair bit about Spaltudaq, I had to ask Fanning whether he’s keeping the name of the company. “We have the discussion internally from time to time” about changing the name, he says. For now, it’s staying. Founder Johnny Stine came up with the name, which stands for an Indian healing ceremony to ensure that people don’t die before their time. “It’s a neat name, and really links to our goal of developing drugs for patients,” Fanning says.

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