Gates Foundation backs $13M venture add for flu drug developer

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has stepped up with another equity investment in a biotech company, this time making a major contribution to a $13 million Series A add for a startup aiming at a universal preventive as well as therapeutic approach to influenza. Omega Funds also joined the venture top-up, bringing the first venture round for Cambridge, MA-based Visterra to $26 million.

Much of that money is being earmarked to take the preclinical program for VIS410–a broad-spectrum antibody that CEO Steven Brugger believes can demonstrate just what its technology platform can do–into the clinic in 2014. The biotech’s platform was spawned at the MIT lab of Ram Sasisekhara, who helped launch Momenta Pharmaceuticals ($MNTA) and served as scientific adviser when Brugger had been COO at the developer.

Visterra has been keeping a low profile up to now, says Brugger, after raising $6 million in seed cash four years ago and opening its labs in 2009. Polaris Venture PartnersFlagship Ventures and Lux Capital put up the first $13 million in Series A cash. And now the veil has been lifted on Visterra, which has a staff of 21.

Brugger tells FierceBiotech that VIS410 has the potential to work against any strain of seasonal or pandemic influenza, “and it should be effective as a preventive and a therapeutic.” The technology has a number of applications. Just weeks ago Visterra announced that it had struck a partnership with Pfizer ($PFE), which paid an unspecified upfront and agreed to a slate of milestones for a development deal. The companies did not reveal the targets that Visterra will tackle on behalf of the drug giant.

Visterra is taking a unique antibody approach to flu. Its scientists identified a networked cluster of amino acids on the hemagluttinin protein, which the flu virus uses to enter cells and infect the host. That target gives them a potential key to treating or preventing all flu strains, coming up with a drug that the virus won’t be able to mutate away from–a key problem with today’s vaccines. And Brugger emphasized that this antibody approach is not a vaccine.

That’s the kind of big idea that the Gates Foundation likes to support. And Brugger says the startup has a clear shot at gaining some of the nondilutive federal support available for companies offering a possible protection against pandemics.

– here’s the press release

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