Startup targets orphan kidney disease with former Merck drug

money, dollar

money, dollar

Backed by $80 million in Series C funding, Vera Therapeutics is targeting a chronic kidney disease with its first drug candidate, atacicept, a product the company licensed from Merck KGaA.

Based in South San Francisco, Vera hopes to launch a phase 2b trial of atacicept by mid-2021 for patients with immunoglobin A nephropathy, a chronic disease that impedes the kidney’s ability to filter blood and can eventually lead to the need for dialysis or a transplant.

There are no approved treatments for the disease, known as IgAN, which afflicts about 200,000 patients in the U.S., said Dr. Marshall Fordyce, Vera’s founder and CEO. But atacicept has shown promise following analysis of previous trials where it was tested in patients with lupus. It also has been shown to be safe.

“This is a really rare opportunity,” Fordyce said in a phone interview. 

Vera is weighing additional trials of atacicept for other indications, including lupus nephritis, said Fordyce, who is the former senior director of clinical research at Gilead Sciences.

In addition to research, the new funding will support efforts to build up manufacturing capacity for Vera, which hopes to expand its pipeline of therapies for immunologic and inflammatory diseases. The company is looking for other drug candidates to license, Fordyce said

Fordyce is joined in the effort by other former Gilead executives. They include: Joanne Curley, Vera’s chief development officer; Lauren Frenz, Vera’s chief business officer; and Tom Doan, Vera’s senior vice president of clinical operations.

“The strong support of our syndicate reflects strong conviction in Vera’s clinical development experience and the potential of our lead asset to target the source of immune complexes in patients with IgAN and change the standard of care,” Fordyce said in a statement.

The Series C round was led by Abingworth LLP with participation from Sofinnova Investments, Longitude Capital, Fidelity Management & Research Co., Surveyor Capital, Octagon Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Alexandria Venture Investment and GV, formerly Google Ventures.

“Vera has an outstanding team with track records in successful clinical and commercial development,” Abingworth’s managing partner, Kurt von Emster, said in a statement. “Dr. Fordyce brings significant leadership and entrepreneurial experience to this unique opportunity, where we have a clear line-of-sight from a well-validated biologic target to a substantially de-risked drug product, in a disease area that is commercially underserved, presenting a near-term opportunity to demonstrate disease modification for patients with limited options.”

Vera was initially founded as a gene editing company called Trucode Gene Repair. It came out of stealth mode in September 2019 with $34 million in funding from Kleiner Perkins and GV. The company focused on next-generation in vivo gene editing technology to correct mutations that cause sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis and other genetic disorders.

The company is looking for a partner for its gene-editing assets, which include a proprietary chemical platform, Fordyce said.

Photo: CaptureTheWorld, Getty Images

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