Third Rock Ventures, LLC, announced the launch of a new biotechnology company, Pliant Therapeutics, Inc., with $45 million in Series A financing. Pliant plans to develop drugs for the treatment of fibrotic diseases, including idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF).
The new company’s ultimate goal, it says in a press release, is to develop a therapy to stop and potentially reverse IPF, although it acknowledges that the mechanisms of the disease are yet to be fully identified and will require extensive research.
Bernard Coulie, ActoGenix’s co-founder and former CEO, who also held leadership roles at Johnson & Johnson, will serve as Pliant’s CEO. Celgene Cellular Therapeutics’ recently retired CEO, Perry Karsen, will serve as Pliant’s chairman of the board.
Pliant’s science is grounded on the work of Dean Sheppard, a professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, Allergy and Sleep at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF); Bill DeGrado, a professor in the UCSF Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry; Hall Chapman, a professor of medicine at UCSF Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, Allergy and Sleep; and Bradley Backes, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at UCSF.
The scientific co-founders’ research is focused on a family of protein receptors, called integrins. These receptors have a significant function in excessive signal activation of transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta). Working with genetic “knock-out” mice models, Sheppard and his team managed to delete all members of the integrin family called alpha V, preventing the formation of fibrosis in the lungs, liver and kidneys. Further research selectively targeted a subset of TGF-beta activity without disrupting all other activity.
IPF still has significant unmet medical needs, as there are only two U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved treatments: Esbriet and Ofev. The San Francisco Business Times also recently reported that Gilead Sciences ended a mid-stage trial of an experimental IPF drug in January 2016 after a data-monitoring committee concluded it wasn’t effective.
Pliant’s founders, however, believe they hold the inside track on a drug that might inhibit a specific protein connected to a cell type believed to cause fibrosis. In early studies, Pliant’s compound appeared to target TGF-beta. “We are solely focused on the mechanism that drives fibrosis,” Coulie said in an interview with The San Francisco Business Times. “You need to know what your molecular target is. You need to know what kind of target you’re going after.”
If the company’s approach proves to be effective, it might transform the management of scleroderma, Crohn’s disease (CD), nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and cardiac and renal fibrosis. Pliant plans to hire 18 additional researchers and employees by the end of the year to advance its work.
“We and others are trying to identify targets that can stop the progression of fibrosis,” Coulie said. “It may be possible even to reverse it, to regress the fibrosis. Not only do we think we can maintain a patient with a certain amount of lung function, but we may be able to help them improve. That’s our goal.”
The new company is based in Redwood City, California.