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Versant-backed Jecure launches to tackle NASH

Biotech will use $20 million in funding to develop first-in class compounds

by Lisa M. Jarvis
February 15, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 8

Credit: Science Picture Co/Science Source
Roughly 16 million Americans have NASH, which is marked by scarring of the liver.
A photo of a liver afflicted by NASH.
Credit: Science Picture Co/Science Source
Roughly 16 million Americans have NASH, which is marked by scarring of the liver.

Versant Ventures is putting $20 million into Jecure Therapeutics, a San Diego-based biotech tapping into industry fervor over nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. With its first major round of venture funding, Jecure hopes to generate a pipeline of small molecules for the liver disease.

Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, is a serious disease marked by the accumulation of fat, cellular inflammation, and scarring. Although it is expected to become the leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S. by 2020, no treatments are as yet available for the disease.

That giant patient population and wide-open opportunity has led to a buying frenzy among large companies such as Allergan and Gilead Sciences hoping to establish leading positions in a field.

But right now the clinical landscape is dominated by compounds repurposed from other indications, says Jecure CEO Jeffrey Stafford. Although those drugs could help NASH patients in the near term, Stafford says, Jecure is focused on novel targets emerging from the labs of its scientific founder, University of California, San Diego, gastroenterologist Ariel Feldstein.

Feldstein has spent two decades developing animal models and cell-based assays that allow high-throughput testing of compounds. His discovery platform has allowed Jecure scientists to find small molecules that can, in a tissue-specific manner, switch on or off the inflammatory component in NASH.

Jecure, named after the Latin word for “liver,” expects to ask FDA later this year for permission to start human trials of its first drug candidate. With a second candidate close behind and a goal of establishing a pipeline of therapies, Jecure expects to expand its currently small staff to about 25 researchers.

Jecure reunites Stafford and James Veal, biotech entrepreneurs who previously started another Versant-backed firm, Quanticel Pharmaceuticals. Celgene bought that cancer-focused company in 2015.



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