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Avelas Bio Raises $20M to Push Cancer-Illuminating Biologic Agent

Xconomy San Diego — 

San Diego’s Avelas Biosciences, founded in 2009 to advance a fluorescing biologic agent intended to help surgeons differentiate cancerous tissue from healthy tissue, has completed a $20 million Series C round of venture funding.

Pharmstandard International, the Luxembourg-based investment arm of the Russian pharmaceutical giant Pharmstandard (and a first-time investor in Avelas), led the round. It was joined by two other new backers, Ervington Investments and Alexandria Venture Investments, and previous investors WuXi Healthcare Ventures, Bregua Corp., and San Diego’s Avalon Ventures.

Inbio Ventures, a venture capital management company, represented Pharmstandard in the deal.

Avelas plans to use the new funding to advance development of AVB-620, the company’s lead diagnostic agent, for use in breast cancer surgeries, CEO Carmine Stengone told me yesterday. Stengone said the new funding also will help the company evaluate the use of AVB-620 in other types of cancer surgery, to advance new cancer drugs that rely on Avelas’ proprietary technology, and to expand the company’s current roster of “seven employees and an army of consultants.”

Avalon Ventures founded Avelas, and has housed the startup with other Avalon biotech startups at its COI Pharmaceuticals R&D facility in San Diego. The company also is planning to relocate to new offices, Stengone said.

AVB-620 is a fluorescing peptide that glows under UV light in tissue containing high levels of protease, an enzyme that breaks down proteins and peptides. Tumors secrete excessive amounts of protease, so a peptide that fluoresces in tissue with high protease activity could be used to help a surgeon tell the difference between healthy and cancerous tissue.

Avelas licensed its core technology from the UC San Diego lab of Roger Tsien, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein. The first-in-human trials of AVB-620 began last year at UC San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center. Avelas reported positive interim results three months ago from the early stage, proof-of-concept trial, which has been taking place at Moores, Stanford University, and UC San Francisco, Stengone said. The company reported interim results in May that showed no toxicity issues with AVB-620, and found that surgeons could tell the difference between cancerous and non-cancerous tissue. The Phase 1b study also determined a preferred dose for the next stage in the study.

Avelas Biosciences CEO Carmine Stengone

Carmine Stengone

The study also generated “some compelling pre-clinical data” on the potential use of Avelas’ cell-penetrating peptide molecule as a way to deliver toxic chemotherapy drugs inside cancer cells, Stengone said. “There are broad-ranging implications for our platform, from delivering fluorescing peptides to therapeutic disease management,” Stengone said.

In conjunction with the financing, Avelas said Andrei Petrov has joined the company’s board of directors. He is the CEO and managing partner at Inbio Ventures. Avalon Ventures founder Kevin Kinsella plans to step down as a director of the company, along with Nikolay Savchuk of Torrey Pines Investment. Avalon partner Jay Lichter plans to continue serving as Avelas’ chairman, Stengone said.