16 July 2015

Protagonist Therapeutics, a spin-out company from The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), has raised $40 million to begin clinical trials of an oral drug for Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

Protagonist was founded by IMB’s Associate Professor Mark Smythe and operates out of Brisbane, Australia and Milpitas, California.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease is a group of autoimmune diseases including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. All diseases in the group have symptoms in common including recurring gut pain and cramping, fatigue, fever and diarrhoea.

Australia has one of the highest rates of prevalence and incidence of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in the world, with nearly 75,000 Australians affected, according to a 2013 PwC report.

Dr Smythe said current treatment of IBD involved non-targeted drugs that suppress the entire immune system, escalating to less-safe drugs in patients who didn’t respond.

“Patients ultimately transition to targeted therapies called biologics that have to be injected into healthy tissues. They also have safety issues and are usually taken as a last resort before surgery,” he said.

“Protagonist has developed equivalents of these biologics that would hopefully be taken orally in the form of a pill. Such drugs would be restricted to diseased gastric tissue and wouldn’t impact healthy tissue, providing longer-term and safer treatment.”

Protagonist plans to begin clinical trials in Australia to test the safety of their drug candidate by the end of the year and progress to trialling the drug worldwide in IBD patients during 2016.

The $40 million was raised through Series C financing, with new investors including Canaan Partners as the lead, along with Adage Capital Management, RA Capital Management and Foresite Capital.

All of the company’s existing investors, including Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JJDC, Lilly Ventures, Pharmstandard International, S.A., and Starfish Ventures, also joined in the financing.

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