Life-science briefing: Monday, March 10, 2008

TODAY’S HEADLINES:

BrainCells raises $30M for neuroregeneration drugs – San Diego’s BrainCells, a startup focused on drugs intended to stimulate the growth of new neurons, raised $30 million in a second funding round. Investors included MedImmune Ventures, Bay City Capital, Oxford Bioscience Partners, Technology Partners, Pappas Ventures and Neuro Ventures.

BrainCells set out several years ago to discover drugs that stimulate neuron growth, following pioneering discoveries at the Salk Institute that revealed mechanisms by which the brain itself regrows its primary cells under certain circumstances. The startup, which raised $17.7 million in a 2004 first round, has been screening experimental compounds against neural stem cells to identify ones that had the previously overlooked property of promoting the growth of new brain cells.

The company’s lead drug candidate, BCI-540, which it licensed from Mitsubishi Pharma, will soon be mid-stage, phase II trials as a potential treatment for depression and anxiety disorder. (Mitsubishi had previously tested as a possible Alzheimer’s therapy, so it’s already been taken by 700 patients and is considered safe.) A follow-up compound, also licensed from a Japanese company — Taisho Pharmaceutical — remains in animal testing at the moment.

ekr-pharma-logo-150px.gifEKR Therapeutics takes in $50M plus $95M in debt for pain, heart drugs – Cedar Knolls, N.J., specialty pharma EKR Therapeutics raised $50 million in a fourth funding round that also included $95 million in debt. Investors in the equity round included MPM Capital, LLR Partners, Quaker BioVentures, the Garden State Life Sciences Venture Fund, NewSpring Capital and ESP Equity Partners. GE Healthcare Financial Services provided the debt financing.

EKR, like most specialty pharmas, acquires or licenses cast-off drugs from other companies, usually in hopes of finding new uses for them. Although the release doesn’t say so specifically, this funding will likely cover the company’s recent purchase of several drugs from the rapidly disintegrating PDL BioPharma; last month, EKR said it had raised an undisclosed amount of funding for that deal, in which it agreed to pay $85 million up front and another $85 million in potential milestone payments.

The company also has the distinction of using that deal to “re-acquire” several drugs that an earlier incarnation known as ESP Pharmaceuticals handed to PDL in a 2005 acquisition, an interesting turn of events we covered here.