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Sharpening Its Focus On Drugs, Pronutria Bags $39M From Fidelity, Flagship

Xconomy Boston — 

Pronutria looks a little different today than the startup that emerged from stealth in 2013. It’s added “Biosciences” to the end of its name to reflect a shift in strategy. Its research team is now run by a former star scientist at Vertex Pharmaceuticals. And today, it landed its biggest round of funding yet.

Pronutria has raised a $39 million Series C round led by new investor Fidelity Management & Research. Fidelity joined with the Cambridge, MA-based company’s founding backer, Flagship Ventures, and other unnamed investors. Since inception Pronutria has raised a total of $65 million, according to CEO Robert Connelly (pictured above).

The company was founded to build a library of the DNA sequences of various amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—and use that database to help understand how amino acids get out of whack in certain diseases. When it emerged from stealth in 2013, Pronutria planned to develop medical foods, dietary supplements, and therapeutics.

But Connelly says Pronutria is now first and foremost a drugmaker delving into the links between amino acids and disease. The company has spent the last few years amassing its database, which Connelly says now has over 1 billion sequences of proteins in the human diet. It added “Biosciences” to its name at the end of 2014, and hired two former Vertex (NASDAQ: VRTX) executives, Peter Mueller and Christopher Wright, to its leadership team. Mueller, who came aboard in December, is Pronutria’s chief scientific officer; Wright its senior vice president and chief medical officer who joined from Vertex in March.

Pronutria now says it wants to treat people facing “serious conditions” with “few or no options.” It hasn’t named any of these diseases, but said they are in areas that include muscle, metabolic, neurological, and liver disorders.

While Pronutria won’t completely rule out foods and supplements, Connelly says the firm’s “primary and secondary focus is very much around therapeutics—adding the ‘Biosciences’ really reflected much more who we are.”

The therapeutics would be pills or liquids and meant to address conditions that might be the result of a lack of a certain amino acid—for instance, muscle loss or atrophy due to aging, injury, or disease. There’s a “tremendous” amount of data showing certain amino acids might prevent atrophy or restore healthy muscle, says Connelly. Amino acids might also play a role in some of the symptoms related to autism and epilepsy, he says.

“You’ve got to have the ability to understand which amino acids are important, what roles they play, and to select the proteins that deliver [them] with the right precision,” says Connelly. “There is no way to do that through amino acid supplementation or whey [protein] shakes—none of that accomplishes the kind of effect that we believe we can have.”

The company hasn’t shared any data yet, but Connelly says Pronutria will discuss human proof of concept results “probably toward the end of June.”

The new round of cash will go toward tests in patients with muscle loss and undisclosed neurological disease, and prepare the company’s lead product for a pivotal study next summer, Connelly says. The 36-employee company will add to its ranks as well.