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Duke Offshoot Trevena Closes $24M Funding Round to Support GPCR Drug-Discovery Tech

Trevena, a Duke University spinout developing drugs targeting G-protein coupled receptors, has closed a $24 million Series A financing round to continue developing its drug-discovery platform, the company said last week.
Trevena, whose platform is based in part on research conducted by a Duke scientist who helped invent the popular Transfluor GPCR assay, will look to leverage its relationship with its academic scientific founders to further develop its drug-discovery program, according to a company official.
Alta Partners and Healthcare Ventures led the financing round as part of an investor syndicate that included New Enterprise Associates and Polaris Venture Partners, Trevena said.
Trevena licensed its drug-discovery platform from Duke University. It is based on research conducted by Robert Lefkowitz, professor of medicine and biochemistry at Duke University Medical Center; and Howard Rockman, chief of cardiovascular medicine at DUMC.
Specific terms of Trevena’s licensing deal with Duke have not been disclosed. It is likely that Duke has also taken an equity position in the company, as Ralph Snyderman, chancellor emeritus at Duke and professor of medicine at the Duke School of Medicine, has been named to Trevena’s board of directors.
Calls to Duke’s Office of Licensing and Ventures were not returned in time for this publication.
According to Trevena, Lefkowitz and Rockman have developed a broad-based technology platform that enables the discovery of drugs targeting GPCRs across “multiple therapeutic areas.” The company declined to provide specific disease areas of interest.
“We’re not going to speak specifically about the base technology, but I think it’s fair to say that it is a broad-based platform that allows us to take a new look at GPCR drugs – both to design novel agents that have better efficacy and potentially improve safety profiles,” Mark Strobeck, chief business officer of Trevena, told BTW this week.
“We’re taking a new look into this area, and that technology is largely borne out of the significant research that was done in the labs of [Lefkowitz and Rockman], in combination with some of the work that’s going on in other academic labs that we’ve been able to get access to,” Strobeck added. He declined to disclose which academic labs Trevena has licensed technology from.
It is estimated that drugs that target GPCRs constitute approximately 40 percent of all marketed drugs today. In a statement, Maxine Gowen, president and CEO of Trevena, said that GPCRs “provide an attractive starting point for new pharmaceutical agents. Trevena’s mission will be to utilize a state-of-the-art approach to discover and develop new GPCR-targeted medicines.”
The backgrounds of Lefkowitz and Rockman may provide some additional clues as to Trevena’s direction. In the drug-discovery tools arena, Lefkowitz is well known as one of three inventors from Duke – the others being Marc Caron and Lawrence Barak – whose GPCR research served as the basis of the popular Transfluor assay for GPCR drug discovery.
The three helped spin out a drug-discovery company based on the technology in 1999 called Norak Biosciences, which subsequently changed its name to Xsira Pharmaceuticals. In 2005, Molecular Devices acquired the Transfluor technology from Xsira for $11 million.

”This is not a kind of take-it-and-run situation. This is one where we’re trying to build a long standing relationship with Duke, and I think it’s a credit to the Office of Licensing and Ventures that we’ve been able to do that.”

Transfluor became the anchor assay technology on which many of Molecular Devices’ imaging technologies were based, and several large pharmaceutical companies have licensed the technology over the years for use in their internal drug-discovery programs. Transfluor is now owned by MDS Sciex, which acquired Molecular Devices early last year for $615 million.
In terms of indications, Rockman’s lab studies the role of GPCR signaling in hypertrophy and heart failure. Specifically, he focuses on the interaction of phosphoinositide-3 kinase with β-adrenergic receptors and conducts physiological analyses of cardiac function in genetically altered mice to understand the role of GPCR signaling pathways in the development of heart failure in vivo, according to his laboratory website.
Trevena’s Strobeck, who was previously vice president of business development for drug discovery at GlaxoSmithKline, said that like most VC firms, Trevena’s Series A investors were drawn to the experience and expertise of its scientific founders.
“This was definitely a very well-subscribed financing round with some leading venture capitalists,” Strobeck said. “I think what largely attracted them to the investment was certainly the ability to work with Bob Lefkowitz and Howard Rockman.”
Strobeck added that there are “two critical factors an investor thinks about when investing in a new organization. One is around the science, because that is going to provide the basic infrastructure of the organization; and the second is the team that is going to be put in place to manage that technology, further develop it, and discover new drugs.”
In Lefkowitz, Strobeck said that the investors are “working with one of the leading scientists in the GPCR field, who for the better part of his career defined GPCRs as we know them.” Meantime, Rockman “has played a very important role” in defining how GPCRs work in the cardiovascular system.
“If you marry that with a very senior, experienced pharmaceutical executive like Maxine [Gowan], who has a long track record of building highly productive organizations … you’ve got a pretty significant investment thesis for the VCs,” Strobeck added. Gowan was most recently the senior vice president of GlaxoSmithKline’s Center for Excellence for External Drug Discovery.
Strobeck also indicated that Trevena would leverage its relationship with Lefkowitz, Rockman, and Duke to further its research. “Duke has been absolutely terrific to work with from the perspective of an organization that is just getting off the ground,” Strobeck said. “That has helped us in a variety of ways, but it has also helped create a relationship between Trevena and Duke where we will certainly be working with them going forward … in the basic building of this organization … [and] by continuing to access research and innovation occurring at Duke.
”This is not a kind of take-it-and-run situation,” he added. “This is one where we’re trying to build a long standing relationship with Duke, and I think it’s a credit to the Office of Licensing and Ventures that we’ve been able to do that.”
Although Trevena’s roots are in Research Triangle Park, NC, it is branching out. The company is maintaining research facilities in North Carolina, Strobeck said, but its headquarters will be in Berwyn, Penn., a suburb of Philadelphia.
“We have three key scientists that have moved to Trevena from Bob [Lefkowitz]’s lab, that we’re very excited about having on board,” Strobeck said. “And we have a base in Philadelphia largely because there is a very rich, deep population of pharmaceutical executives that exist in that area, which is due to the fact that a lot of pharmaceutical companies are in the area.”
Meanwhile, Alta Partners has its main offices in San Francisco; Healthcare Ventures in Cambridge, Mass., and Princeton, NJ; New Enterprise Associates in California and Maryland; and Polaris Venture Partners in Boston.
In connection with the financing round, Farah Champsi, managing director at Alta; Christopher Mirabelli, partner at Healthcare Ventures; Robert Garland, partner at New Enterprise Associates; Terry McGuire, managing partner at Polaris; and Gowen joined Duke’s Snyderman on the Trevena board.

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