Life sciences briefing: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007

TODAY’S HEADLINES:

Gene-silencing developer Santaris raises €20M — Denmark’s Santaris Pharma, a developer of gene-silencing drugs, raised €20 million ($30 million) (PDF) in a third financing round. Investors included Gilde Healthcare Partners, BankInvest, Novo, LD, Forbion Capital Partners, Global Life Science Venture, Sunstone Capital, Seventure, Omega, Innovation Capital and members of the Company’s board and management. Gilde contributed €7.5 million to the round.

Santaris is pursuing an “antisense” strategy for turning off particular disease-related genes using synthetic strands of nucleic acid, which bind to and deactivate the messenger RNA molecules that are crucial to gene activity. (Technically, the mRNA plays a key role in the manufacture of a gene’s protein or proteins, which in disease states are often either malformed or overproduced. The drug molecule is a complement to the mRNA’s nucleic-acid sequence, which in DNA chemistry makes it an “antisense” molecule.)

Whereas biotechs working on antisense drugs have traditionally used strands of DNA — often chemically modified to improve their durability and cell-penetrating abilities — to block gene activity, Santaris has produced what it claims is a unique RNA analogue that it calls a “locked nucleic acid.” (The company goes into detail here.) The Santaris molecule, which combines LNA and DNA, is supposed to bind RNA in three dimensions, presumably boosting its binding ability and therefore potency.

Santaris is first targeting chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and says its drug candidate has already demonstrated initial safety and efficacy in an early-stage human test. The company has several other candidates in preclinical development, as well as two other molecules it licensed to Enzon Pharmaceuticals, one of which has also begun human testing against cancer.

For a more detailed look at antisense, see our coverage of Excaliard Pharmaceuticals, a biotech that licensed a slew of technology from antisense pioneer Isis Pharmaceuticals, here.

redbrick-health-logo-150px.gifConsumer-driven healthcare manager RedBrick Health prescribed $15M — RedBrick Health, a Minneapolis healthcare company promoting “consumer-oriented” plans that shift much of the financial responsibility for medical care to individuals, raised $15 million in a second funding round. Investors included Fidelity Ventures, Highland Capital Partners and Versant Ventures.

RedBrick aims to help companies set up consumer-directed healthcare plans, which are also known as “defined contribution” schemes in that they limit the financial exposure of employers, who simply make regular contributions to employee “health savings accounts.” These plans, obviously, put the financial onus on individuals, who pay for their own medical care out of these accounts, in contrast to traditional “defined benefit” plans in which individuals pay premiums for comprehensive health coverage. In theory, these consumer-oriented plans should hold down healthcare costs by making individuals more “responsible” users of medical care; in practice, sick patients are often in a terrible position to be good medical “consumers,” and the plans have have proven generally unpopular to boot.

That hasn’t slowed RedBrick or its backers. The company will use the funding to continue expanding its efforts to sell and manage consumer-directed healthcare plans, which RedBrick somewhat misleadingly insists on calling “consumer-owned” healthcare. (Such plans usually couple health-savings accounts with a high-deductible insurance plan.) The company recently announced deals with several new client companies, although none are exactly what you’d call high profile firms — their ranks include the Ridgeview Medical Center in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, which is switching its employees to a RedBrick-supported plan, and Welch Allyn, a medical-device manufacturer in Skaneateles Falls, N.Y., which is doing likewise.

cardiac-dimensions-logo-150px.gifCardiac Dimensions takes in $36M for heart-valve device – Cardiac Dimensions, a Kirkland, Wash., developer of heart-valve devices, raised $35.5 million in a fourth financing round. Investors included Johnson & Johnson Development, Lumira Capital, Mitsubishi UFJ Capital, West River Capital, Montgomery & Co., Frazier Healthcare Ventures, Interwest Partners, MPM Capital, and Polaris Venture Partners.

Cardiac Dimensions is working on an implantable device designed to reshape the heart’s mitral valve, which in heart-failure patients sometimes weakens and allows blood to swish backward through the heart’s chambers. We’ve covered several other startups working on mitral-valve devices, including Evalve and Cardiosolutions.