Record Series A for Italian Biotech Funds Autoimmune Therapy

Italian biotech Enthera raised €28M in Series A funding to develop its drug candidate for type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease and take it to human trials. 

Enthera was founded in 2016 and is the first company to ‘graduate’ from the BiovelocITA accelerator program in Milan, which is supported by French life science investor Sofinnova Partners. 

The company raised €4M in seed funding in the summer of 2018 from Sofinnova and the JDRF, a research charity funding academic and industry research into treating and curing type 1 diabetes. 

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Both Sofinnova and JDRF contributed to the Series A funding, along with big pharma AbbVie, which has experience of developing autoimmune disease therapies and has a particular interest in developing treatments for the inflammatory bowel diseases Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. 

Italy does not typically see large funding rounds for biotech companies and this is the biggest Series A financing round backed by international VCs seen so far. Something that is particularly notable given the disruption in the region caused by Covid-19 during the first half of 2020. It is also the first time US-based AbbVie has invested in an Italian biotech company. 

The interest in Enthera can be credited to its innovative science. The company has discovered a biological pathway that is activated in people with both type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel diseases, and causes cells to die prematurely through a process called apoptosis.

“By blocking this pathway, our lead candidate has the potential to preserve insulin-producing beta cells … thereby restoring pancreatic function,” Giovanni Amabile, CEO of Enthera, told me. 

“We found this same pathway to be dysregulated in intestinal stem cells of inflammatory bowel disease patients; these cells progressively disappear, leaving the body incapable to repair damage caused in the intestinal mucosa.”

At present, Enthera has only tested its lead drug candidate preclinically. The company plans to use some of the money from the Series A to progress it towards clinical trials. 

“Our selective inhibitors are the only drugs in development that target this pathway to prevent stem cell apoptosis and restore pancreatic beta cells and gut function. By restoring the original structure and function of the target organs, we are also able to reverse disease progression and modulate the immune response occurring in these patients,” noted Amabile.

To date, the abnormal activation of this particular apoptosis pathway has been observed primarily in type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel diseases, but the company’s team thinks it may also be effective in other conditions. 

As autoimmune conditions such as type 1 diabetes tend to be progressive, it is likely that Enthera’s lead candidate will be most useful in patients that are still in the earlier stages. 

“We believe our therapy will be most effective when used as an intervention earlier in disease development when the mass of residual target cells is maximal. However, we are in the process of investigating further the potential of our drug to promote regeneration in patients with a long history of disease, since even a single cell has been shown to respond positively to our molecule,” explained Amabile.

Despite the current pandemic, Italian biotech seems to be doing well with a number of investments and acquisitions in the region in recent months. Amabile says that if anything he thinks the overall sector seems to be benefiting from increased interest since Covid-19 became so widespread. 

“In 2020, nearly $6.6B [€5.6B] was poured into the sector — the largest one-quarter inflow in over a decade. The Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted once more the importance of investment in biotech to generate effective treatments for intractable diseases.”

 

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