Accelerator’s MicroRNA Play, Mirina, Forges Ahead With One More Year of Cash

4/26/10Follow @xconomy

Mirina, one of the intriguing startups hatched in the past couple years at Seattle-based Accelerator, has passed a key test that will allow it to live to fight another day. The developer of microRNA-based therapies has secured an undisclosed “expansion round” of financing that will allow it to operate another 12 to 15 months, according to Accelerator CEO Carl Weissman.

Versant Ventures, one of the original backers of Accelerator seven years ago, has jumped in to lead this additional round of financing for Mirina, Weissman says. Most of the usual Accelerator syndicate is joining in too—Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Arch Venture Partners, OVP Venture Partners, and WRF Capital. While this isn’t enough money for Mirina to spin out of Accelerator like some of its predecessors, Mirina will use the cash to keep testing its technology for making microRNA drugs, and it will have a chance to secure some new intellectual property around some surprising new pharmaceutical characteristics, Weissman says.

Mirina’s ability to secure cash is a reflection of how microRNA has emerged as one of the hottest concepts in biology since they were first discovered in humans about a decade ago. The idea is to create drugs that can inhibit specific stretches of RNA that regulate how networks of proteins are expressed. By hitting switches that control entire networks of proteins, scientists hope to have success against complex diseases like diabetes, cancer, and inflammation that involve activity of many genes and proteins. Hitting these networks may have more power against these complex conditions than more traditional approaches that tend to rely on specifically inhibiting a single gene or protein, scientists say.

MicroRNA still represents the bleeding edge of biological research, as no one has yet come close to FDA approval of a drug that works this way, and only one company, Denmark-based Santaris Pharma, is thought to have entered clinical trials. But a number of companies have sprouted up to take advantage of the concept, including Santaris, Carlsbad, CA-based Regulus Therapeutics, Boulder, CO-based Miragen Therapeutics, and Austin, TX-based Mirna Therapeutics.

Carl Weissman

Carl Weissman

The Accelerator’s bet on the space, Mirina, was founded in August 2008 with a license to a chemistry platform from Nanogen (now part of France’s Elitech Group) which it believes allows for more potent microRNA-inhibitors than the rest of the pack,Weissman says. Accelerator is known for keeping its startups on a short leash, insisting they hit specific milestones in their first 18 to 24 months. While Mirina hasn’t hit all of them, it has produced such compelling evidence on a couple of counts, and shown some upside surprises, that it enticed investors to keep it going. The company has shown it can make its oligonucleotide drugs, and that they are potent and specific for certain microRNA regulatory switches. Now it wants to know how well that can be applied to certain models of disease.

“This is spectacular,” Weissman says. “The chemistry has some new and unexpected properties that will differentiate it in more ways than just potency, compared with everybody else out there.”

Weissman declined to be more specific about what those characteristics are, because Mirina is in the midst of trying to secure new intellectual property around them, he says.

If Mirina’s technology is really so hot, I wondered, why isn’t it “graduating” from Accelerator … Next Page »

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  • Ajamete Kaykas

    I applaud Mirna and Carl for staying lean and not going after a larger second round of funding. It is more important to fully develop your technology and scientific staff than to add a bunch of business and admin. staff. Staying lean will allow Mirna to put itself in a reasonable place for partnerships or a takeout event without drastically increasing the amount of money that has been invested and putting these important events for Accelerator companies out of reach.
    Viva the evolution!