UW Spinoff Impel NeuroPharma Nabs Two Big Pharma Deals, $500K in Angel Financing

10/20/11Follow @xconomy

Seattle-based Impel NeuroPharma has gotten a big vote of confidence for its technology that aims to deliver certain drugs more efficiently to the brain.

The company, a University of Washington spinout, said today it has secured funding from two of the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies, plus another $500,000 in a Series B angel financing. Impel, founded in 2008, has now raised more than $2.1 million combined from the U.S. Department of Defense, Washington’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund, and angel investors from the Wings medical device network, according to co-founder and CEO Mike Hite.

Impel isn’t disclosing terms of the pharma collaborations, but Hite said one will test its nose-to-brain drug delivery technology in animals, while another will study the drug/device combo in humans. Impel plans to run its first two human studies in 2012, Hite says.

“Other people have tried intranasal delivery, but largely devices deliver the drug to the lower two-thirds of the nasal cavity, not all the way from the nose to brain,” Hite says. “Pharma has tried everything else to get drugs in the brain and it hasn’t worked as well as they’d like, and they see this as the best device currently out there.”

Impel, as I described in an Xconomy feature in September 2008, is trying to take advantage of anatomy deep in the upper nasal passage. It has been developing a device to propel drugs way back there in the skull—the only place in the body where primary neurons are accessible via the outside environment. The Impel device, as scientific co-founder John Hoekman described it then, is made to deliver a pressurized, rotational flow of aerosol to reach those neurons.

Impel NeuroPharma's Nose-to-Brain drug delivery device

That way, patients who need the powerful pain drug Fentanyl, for instance, could take a nasal spray that delivers the drug directly to the brain and reduces pain within five minutes, without going through the bloodstream and causing side effects, namely severe constipation.

The device was originally tested for research at the University of Washington in Rodney Ho’s lab. Since the company’s founding in 2008, much of the development work has focused on taking a research prototype with many components and heavy electronics and turning it into something lighter, cheaper, and more convenient for patients to use.

One key question in human studies will be to see whether the miniaturized device can continue to deliver 60 to 80 percent of the dose where it needs to go, in contact with those primary neurons deep in the skull. Existing nasal sprays may be good at getting a drug into the bloodstream quickly, but they only deliver about 1 percent of their dosage all the way into the upper nasal cavity, Hite says.

“We’ve taken it now from the bench and miniaturized it,” Hite says. “We have made it into a manufacturable, scalable, disposable product.”

The device in its current form is designed to be small enough that a patient can carry it around easily in a personal bag, Hite says. The U.S. military has shown interest, he adds, in having a device that soldiers can clip on their belts, loaded with antidotes to chemical nerve agents they may be exposed to in the field.

Other companies have ideas about nose-to-brain drug delivery, including one local operation—Lynnwood, WA-based Kurve Technology. That company’s device recently received some attention for a study of 104 patients, in which insulin was delivered through the nose as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. UW researcher Suzanne Craft participated in that study, which was described last month in the Archives of Neurology.

Like any company just embarking on its first human studies, lots of questions still need to be answered before Impel can say it has the better mousetrap, or even a viable commercial product. But signing the collaborations and raising the cash means that Impel will at least get a chance to find out whether this technology has legs or not.

“These deals are of huge significance to the company,” Hite says.

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