The startup Forcefield Therapeutics has been unveiled in the UK with €6M (£5.5M) backing from the investment firm Syncona. The mission is to develop the first drugs to safeguard heart muscle from damage during heart attacks.
A sudden heart attack, also known as acute myocardial infarction, happens when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked and the heart muscle is starved of nutrients. When heart tissue is deprived of oxygen for more than 30 minutes, irreversible damage sets in. As a result, patients can face permanent disabilities or even heart failure and death.
“Despite decades of research, no current treatment is able to prevent the death of [heart muscle cells] or a reduction in lifespan and quality of life following acute myocardial infarction,” said Richard Francis, CEO of the UK startup Forcefield Therapeutics.
Forcefield kicked off this week following a €6M (£5.5M) investment from Syncona. The London-based biotech company aims to develop protein drugs that can directly shield heart muscle cells, known as cardiomyocytes, from damage during a heart attack. In contrast, current heart attack treatments typically focus on removing the blockage, thinning the blood, and keeping the arteries open.
“Historically, myocardial infarction has been a very challenging space and no companies have really made a success of this,” said Francis. He added that Forcefield’s protein drugs are designed to protect heart tissue in several ways, including restoring damaged proteins and stopping heart cells from dying.
The protein drugs were developed using a drug discovery platform devised at the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in Italy. The researchers used viral vectors to deliver 1200 candidate genes to the cells of mice undergoing an experimentally-induced heart attack, where the genes were turned into proteins. Three proteins that provided the best protection were then selected and used as the basis of Forcefield’s protein drugs.
While the research originated in Italy, the company was set up in the UK, where the founders are now based.
“Forcefield is in many ways an international company; we have a lean virtual R&D model and aren’t particularly tied to anywhere,” noted Francis. “We also think the UK is a great place for R&D and science-based startups and London is an increasingly attractive place for high science companies with access to top talent, great transport links, and other advantages.”
There are many efforts to innovate in the quest to tackle cardiovascular diseases, the leading causes of death globally. On one front, drugs such as Inclisiran and Vazkepa are racking up approvals to prevent cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, some drugs traditionally prescribed to treat type 2 diabetes such as Jardiance are gaining traction as heart failure treatments, especially in diabetic patients.
However, many cardiovascular disease treatments face a tough road to commercial success. For example, stem cell therapy research in this field is often hampered by a mismatch between the performance of cell therapies in animal model studies and in clinical trials. And Pfizer’s bococizumab was discontinued in 2016 after the drug underperformed at lowering cholesterol and preventing cardiovascular problems.
Forcefield has its own challenges to overcome. For one, the drugs should be rapidly acting and ready to apply as soon as possible to save heart tissue during a heart attack. The company also needs to make sure its protein drugs are simple to manufacture.
Another factor is that cardiovascular disease drug trials typically require large numbers of patients and must be run for a long time to tease out benefits. This means that companies with the deepest pockets are usually the best suited to running these studies.
However, the regulatory arena is now shifting to allow smaller startups to compete at the clinical stages. For example, it’s becoming more acceptable to use surrogate endpoints, biomarkers, and specific patient subpopulations to reduce the costs of clinical trials.
Forcefield isn’t the only company gunning to improve the options for acute cardiovascular problems. In February, the Dutch firm TargED raised €39M in a Series A round to fund the development of a protein fusion drug for acute strokes that breaks down clots faster than do current treatments. If these companies are successful, then medical professionals could have an increasing arsenal of tools to save lives during cardiovascular emergencies.
“Currently the prognosis [for acute heart attacks] is worse than most cancers,” said Francis. “Most of the drugs are based on research from the ‘70s, so here the concept is really revolutionary.”
Cover image via Elena Resko