A Trinity College spinout company developing a new class of drugs to tackle inflammatory diseases has raised over €9 million to fund clinical trials.
Drug discovery group Trino Therapeutics is developing a drug that first came to light through medicinal chemist Helen Sheridan's study of Chinese herbal medicine.
She identified a molecule, or indane, in a Taiwanese fern that had long been used in treating inflammatory conditions, and which is effective in healing in the gut.
With Trinity colleague, pharmacologist Neil Frankish, Prof Sheridan was working on ways to change the molecule in order to increase its medicinal activity when they discovered they had created a new family of chemical compounds.
Britain's Wellcome Trust, which first got involved in the programme a decade ago, has led the current $12 million funding round alongside Irish life science venture capital group Fountain Healthcare Partners.
The money will allow Trino, founded by Profs Frankish and Sheridan, to put its lead drug candidate – PH46A, a “first in class” therapy for inflammatory bowel disease – through early stage safety trials in humans and then into a Phase IIA clinical trial to test its efficacy.
The aim is to develop a safe, oral treatment that can be taken daily and allow patients return to a normal life on a easy to follow drug regime.
The commitment from the Wellcome Trust comes via its high profile Strategic Translation Award programme, which is designed to help fund the commercialisation of new technologies in the area of biomedical research. To qualify, projects need to address an unmet healthcare need, offer a new solution rather than building on existing therapy approaches and have a realistic expectation of commercial development.
“This significant investment validates our research,” Prof Franksih said, adding that it would allow Trino to develop “clinical partnerships so that we can investigate the effectiveness of our research where it is needed - in patients with inflammatory diseases and ineffective drugs”.
Fountain Healthcare partner Ena Prosser said the importance of the award is that applicants have to go through a "really rigorous examination" which is more about the drug's commercial application and potential than simply about the science.
“This is a big disease that is largely ignored by big pharma,” she said.
Richard Seabrook, head of business development at the Wellcome Trust, said: "Current treatments for inflammatory bowel diseases often have significant side effects and patients are faced with tough decisions in how to manage their condition. We are pleased to extend our successful partnership with Trino to support the development of PH46A as a potential new therapy for these debilitating disorders."
Trino will initially target mild to moderate ulcerative colitis, a condition which Dr Prosser says has a market in excess of $1 billion annually in Europe and the north America alone. Prof Frankish says Trino hopes the drug will also have application in Crohn's disease.
It hopes that other molecules in the class of drugs that they have developed could have application in other areas of inflammatory disease, including dermatology, pulmonary and auto-immune disease. While Trino is focusing on PH46A, the company and its investors have said they will work to develop these therapies, probably in partnership with larger international research centres.
“This drug [PH46A] has the potential to be a blockbuster of staggering proportions,” said Prof Frankish, before cautioning that “it remains to be seen if it will deliver”.
He said Trino was setting its sights “very modestly initially” with mild to moderate ulcerative colitis. “It gives us a better chance of showing something in a small trial...for a small phase IIA study, the prime objective is to show that the drug works.”
Dr Prosser said that, for the company, the investment announced today gives the company the “firepower to get as quickly as possible into patients”.
“At the end of that, we will find out if we have a drug that meets unmet needs,” she said, adding that the investment throws a positive light on some of the innovative drug development ongoing in Ireland.
“This is really a dividend for a lot of effort by a lot of people,” said Dr Prosser.
The latest investment is expected to fund Trino through to production of data from the initial phase II trials in roughly three years’ time.
At that stage, Prof Frankish, Trino will likely partner a larger pharma player for ongoing development to commercialisation.
“We are a very small company,” he said, noting that only seed capital from funds like Campus Capital had allowed it “keep our heads above water” in the early stage of development before Wellcome came on board in 2003.
“For us [Frankish and Sheridan] to take something that started on the back of an envelope to treating patients is a major achievement.”
Other early investors in Trino include Enterprise Ireland and Growcorp.