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potency and favorable properties,” such as minimal side effects, he says. The ability to get protein-based drugs into cells, he adds, expands the potential opportunities for combating diseases “exponentially.”
At first, though, it seemed that to achieve the right potency, stapled-peptide drugs would have to be administered once a day by IV, says Yanchik. “That works in oncology. But other diseases? Forget it.” So Aileron’s scientists worked hard to improve the amount of time the molecules stay active in the body before degrading. “We’ve gotten half lives to one week and beyond,” Yanchik says. That’s vital for treating patients with inflammatory diseases, because they often have to take drugs chronically, for years on end. Once Roche saw the half-life improvement, Yanchik says, “We were able to convince them that this was applicable to inflammatory diseases.”
Last year, Aileron moved its staff of 40 to an office on Albany Street that’s designed to facilitate open interactions between biologists and chemists. The scientists work together in a sprawling lab, with wall-to-wall windows facing the outside. “Typically labs have the chemistry department sitting over here and the biology department over there, or maybe in an entirely different building,” Kafka said while taking Xconomy on a tour of Aileron in September. “What we’ve tried to create is a place where a biologist finishes an experiment, has an insight, and can turn around and talk to the chemist who designed the molecule in the first place.”
“There’s lots of interaction among the staff,” adds Sawyer. “It’s really a pleasant and productive place to come to work. You don’t feel like you’re stuck in a cave somewhere.” And because all the scientific disciplines are together in one building, he says, the company is able to move quickly from concept to finished molecule.
Aileron raised $40 million in a 2009 Series D financing round that brought its total funding to $60 million. The Series D included a syndicate of Big Pharma venture capital units. Among them were the VC arms of GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lilly, and Roche. Yanchik says Aileron started talking to Roche’s R&D folks first, and later was introduced to the Roche venture fund. About a year after Roche made the investment, the company’s R&D folks stepped up with a separate drug-development deal.
Yanchik says Aileron’s management team spent many months picking the right partner. “Too often a biotech company is reduced to being a contract-research organization, and that’s usually the beginning of the end,” he says. “We wanted to be an equal partner.” Roche has afforded Aileron that opportunity, as well as sharing its expertise in protein biology, oncology, and developing drugs across “diverse modalities,” Yanchik says.
Aileron has a big list of goals it hopes to achieve over the next year. Yanchik says the company plans to start disclosing the exact disease targets it’s working on and to publish results of its research. The company also hopes to hit at least one more milestone in the Roche development deal, and to lock up a second partnership with another drug company. “We did one partnership and focused on making it work,” Yanchik says. “We’ve had to be patient, but we think it’s paying off. This technology is becoming ripe.”