Clover Therapeutics turns a new leaf as Character Bio to pursue dry AMD & more

Clover Therapeutics turns a new leaf as Character Bio to pursue dry AMD & more

Cheng Zhang CEO cropped


Dry age-related macular degeneration has been an elusive disease target for drug developers. Part of the problem has been a lack of understanding of this eye disease that worsens as people get older, said Cheng Zhang, CEO and co-founder of Character Biosciences. Diseases of aging have been addressed with a one-size fits all approach. But genetic insights are showing that within a disease such as dry AMD, there are vast differences in the clinical and molecular profiles of patients.

“Really, they don’t have the same disease,” Zhang said. “We need to leverage those differences to identify better biomarkers, better targets.”

Character has spent the past two years gathering data, interrogating them with artificial intelligence, and applying the resulting insights to its drug research. The San Francisco-based biotech company now has $18 million in financing to keep two dry AMD programs on the path to the clinic and continue building a pipeline of additional therapies.

Character is the new name of Clover Therapeutics, which was formed in 2019 as the research division of San Francisco-based Medicare Advantage insurance firm Clover Health. Clover Therapeutics combined clinical insights gleaned by its parent with additional data sources to identify patient subgroups that can guide the development of new therapies. Clover Health had applied such techniques to its clinical care offerings.

Clover Therapeutics’ launch came with a big pharma research partnership in place. Collaborating with Roche’s Genentech division, Clover Therapeutics delved into the genetic underpinnings of eye diseases. Zhang said that the first phase focused on dry AMD. The disease is more prevalent in Caucasian people while those of African descent are relatively protected. Zhang said the research aimed to identify and understand these differences and how they can inform drug discovery. Results from the Genentech research will be published soon, Zhang said. Character has already applied those data to the development of its dry AMD therapies.

AMD is a deterioration of the macula, the part of the retina that controls a person’s central vision. The dry form of the disease develops as a progressive thinning of the macula. Wet AMD is caused by abnormal blood vessel growth in the back of the eye. A person’s genes can predispose a person to developing dry AMD, said Marcel van der Brug, Character’s co-founder and chief scientific officer. But the complexity of the disease means that there’s much more at play. In some patients the disease progresses quickly while in others, slowly. Character studied the genetic associations of the disease to select the targets for its drugs. Those targets remain undisclosed for now, but van der Brug said the company’s dry AMD drug candidates are protein-based molecules.

“It’s not a genetic correction,” he said of Character’s drug candidates. “But the modality of the therapy is informed by the genetics telling you what the pathway is.”

Other data also inform the drug discovery process. Real-world data can inform how the disease progresses, Zhang said. Character analyzes electronic medical records, claims data, and imaging data to understand the differences among patients and find the insights that correlate with the molecular drivers of the disease.

Van der Brug said that Character is trying to emulate what the oncology field did decades ago. For example, breast cancer is now not viewed as a single disease, but rather as a clinical diagnosis determined by molecularly defined characteristics in subsets of patients, he said. Drugs are developed to work in each of these different subgroups. In a similar vein, Character could develop multiple dry AMD drugs that address different groups of patients. There are other companies taking a similar approach to drug research. Vesalius Therapeutics applies AI to various sets of data to find patterns in people who have shared disease biology. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech, which launched in March backed by $75 million, is using those insights to guide the development of new drugs for particular groups of patients. Vesalius has not specified which disorders it aims to treat, other than that they are common diseases.

Character has shown efficacy for its dry AMD approach in animal testing and is now in the process of selecting the candidates to advance to clinical development. The next indication for the company is glaucoma. But Zhang emphasized that Character is not an ocular company. The company’s approach can be applied to other common diseases of aging, he said.

Character is not offering an estimate for when it expects to reach the clinic, but Zhang said that the company will need to raise additional funds to begin human testing. The company’s Series A financing announced Tuesday was led by Innovation Endeavors. Other investors include Section 32 and Catalio Capital Management. The company’s seed investors LifeForce Capital, Casdin Capital, Clover Health, Industry Ventures, and Cantos Ventures also participated in the new financing. The capital was raised this past winter, according to Clover Health’s first quarter 2022 financial report. The document shows Clover Therapeutics raised $17.9 million in a transaction completed on Feb. 4. When the deal closed, Clover Health owned about 25% of Clover Therapeutics.

Photo by Character Biosciences

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