Cocrystal Discovery, the Bothell, WA-based drug discovery startup led by a couple of Icos veterans, has nailed down $7.5 million in new investment to develop a new kind of hepatitis C drug with Israel-based Teva Pharmaceutical.
Teva, the big maker of generic drugs that’s increasingly seeking to invent new ones, agreed to invest the money into Cocrystal’s early-stage work on a drug candidate made to block a polymerase enzyme that’s integral to the hepatitis C virus. Teva has also secured the option to invest more if the program reaches certain milestones, and has obtained rights to exclusively license the drug for its own development pipeline. Besides the hepatitis C program, Teva has gotten the option to invest in two more antiviral or antibacterial drug programs at Cocrystal. In return for all the investments, Teva said it will get a 23 percent ownership stake in the small company.
Cocrystal has kept a low profile since it raised $10 million back in September 2008, in a round led by The Frost Group, the investment vehicle for billionaire Philip Frost. Given Cocrystal’s pedigree, this new deal shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise—Frost is the chairman of Teva, and sold his last company, Miami, FL-based Ivax, to Teva for $7.4 billion in 2006.
Internally, Cocrystal is led by chairman and CEO Gary Wilcox, who was previously executive vice president of operations at Bothell, WA-based Icos until that company was bought by Eli Lilly for $2.3 billion in January 2007. Cocrystal’s president is Sam Lee, who led drug discovery teams at Icos. The third founder is Roger Kornberg, a professor of structural biology at Stanford University who won the Nobel in 2006 for insights into how DNA is copied into RNA.
The basic idea at Cocrystal, which Wilcox told me about here three years ago, is to develop conventional small-molecule drugs to kill viruses, built on a better understanding of the biological targets they are supposed to hit. The company is using new X-ray crystallography technologies to get high-resolution views of replication enzymes within viruses, which it hopes will provide insight on how to design drugs that block that critical machinery that makes viruses dangerous. On its website, Cocrystal says it has drug discovery programs ongoing for hepatitis C, flu, and rhinovirus (common cold).
Hepatitis C, a chronic liver-damaging virus that affects 170 million around the world, has clearly emerged as one of the hot areas in drug development as Cambridge, MA-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX) and Whitehouse Station, NJ-based Merck (NYSE: MRK) have each introduced new protease inhibitor drugs that have greatly increased the cure rate for this infection. Scientists are now working on a number of different antiviral combination therapies to see if they can continue to raise the cure rate, and get rid of standard medications that cause side effects.
I sent a note to Wilcox to see if he has any additional comment, and will update this space if I hear back.