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Avila Therapeutics May Have Found “Achilles’ Heel” of Hepatitis C Virus

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170 million people worldwide.

The study presented over the weekend showed several potential benefits of Avila’s hepatitis C drug over existing treatments. For one, it had no significant impact on other proteins, boding well for how safe the drug could be for humans. Another potential perk is that the drug appears to work for 24 hours or more, meaning it could be taken once a day rather than several times a day. Yet there were many new hepatitis C drugs presented at the medical conference and most of the companies presenting those other drugs promised improvements over existing therapies as well. Cambridge, MA-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX) is generally considered the front-runner in the race to develop the first protease inhibitor for hepatitis C, called telaprevir. That drug is now in the third and final stage of clinical trials needed before it can win FDA approval to start selling in the U.S.

For Avila, the hepatitis C protease inhibitor is one of two drugs that are neck and neck for top position in the biotech’s young pipeline, Mahanthappa says. The other, called AVL-291, is a small molecule kinase inhibitor that could be used to treat immune system cancers such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and B cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The company’s earlier plan was to begin human clinical trials of its hepatitis C drug by late 2009, but Mahanthappa says that the company now wants to wait until mid-2010 to start its first clinical trial. The company also hasn’t decided which of its drugs to enter into clinical trials first. The reason for waiting an extra half year to begin clinical trials is to make the firm’s existing capital last longer. The firm wants to raise more venture capital before it launches an initial clinical trial and—in case you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know—the climate nowadays for completing such financings is pretty awful.

Avila is now in the midst of raising another round of financing, Mahanthappa says. The firm has previously recieved $21 million in venture capital from lead investor Abingworth Management as well as Polaris Venture Partners, Atlas Venture, and Advent Venture Partners.

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