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Morphic Nets Another $80M For Integrin Drugs & First Human Tests

Xconomy Boston — 

Morphic Therapeutic, a startup from Harvard scientist-entrepreneur Tim Springer, has reloaded with an $80 million Series B round that should get the company to its first human tests.

The round includes a number of crossover investors (including Invus and EcoR1; Novo Holdings and Omega Funds co-led the financing), which back both private and publicly traded companies. These types of rounds often lay the groundwork for an IPO, and biotechs have been going public by the bushel this year—many without any proof their medicines work in humans.

Still, Morphic CEO Praveen Tipirneni waved aside any talk of an IPO. “We have no plans regarding public raises,” he says.

Waltham, MA-based Morphic was formed based on new insights into the role of a family of proteins on the surface of cells called integrins (pictured). These key proteins help cells travel through the body, form new tissue, heal wounds, and more, but can go awry in diseases like cancer. Integrins have been a known drug target for decades because of their myriad roles. Springer, Morphic’s scientific founder, has a long history developing integrin-targeting drugs. He formed LeukoSite in 1993 and its integrin-blocking drug for inflammatory bowel disease, vedolizumab (Entyvio)—now owned by Takeda—was approved in 2014. (Springer is an entrepreneur, investor, and Harvard professor who helped form Cambridge, MA-based Scholar Rock, invested in several others including Moderna Therapeutics and Editas Medicine, and formed the nonprofit Institute for Protein Innovation last year. Here’s more from the Wall Street Journal.)

Other integrin-blocking drugs from other companies have been approved as well, such as natalizumab (Tysabri, for multiple sclerosis) and eptifibatide (Integrillin, a blood thinner). But some of them come with deadly side effects, and other integrin drugs have failed in clinical trials, including a wave of blood-thinning drugs that actually increased the risk of strokes and heart attacks. Integrin drugs are also infused, not given orally, which is why they have been “historically somewhat limited,” Tipirneni says.

But a newer crop of companies, including Morphic and Redwood City, CA-based Pliant Therapeutics—based on the research of integrin experts at UCSF—believe they’ve learned enough from the failures of the past. Tipernini says new insights from Springer’s lab, such as why some previous integrin drugs did the opposite of what they were supposed to do, have allowed the company to advance the type of drugs that couldn’t have been developed before. Morphic raised a $51.5 million Series A round in June 2016 based on the idea of using a variety of methods, including computer-aided drug design to produce oral, chemical-based drugs that stabilize complexes of integrins. One of Morphic’s founding investors was New York and Portland, OR-based Schrodinger, which makes software for drug developers.

“We essentially started from scratch” in designing new drugs, Tipirneni says. Since raising its initial round, Morphic has made headway identifying possible drugs for fibrosis and inflammatory diseases of the gut. Morphic aims to harness the ability of integrins to precisely regulate a protein known as TGF-beta, for instance, which is thought to drive fibrosis. Morphic has also found a group of integrins that might help immune cells migrate to or from a site of inflammation, or keep them there if necessary.

The new round of cash should get Morphic’s first two drugs—small molecules that block the integrins αvβ6 and α4β7—through their first human trials. The first tests, in in unspecified inflammatory and fibrotic diseases, should start in 2019. Pliant, too, is developing integrin-blocking drugs for fibrosis and raised $62 million from a group of crossover investors in July.