$10 million for new biotech firm with "hibernation" research at core

A crew of top venture capitalists has committed at least $10 million to build a startup biotech company around the work of a Seattle researcher who has successfully put mice into a temporary state of hibernation.

Ikaria, named after a Greek island known for therapeutic hot springs, will establish its labs in Seattle, not far from where its founding research was nurtured at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

The company has exclusive worldwide rights to capitalize on inventions of Mark Roth and colleagues at "The Hutch." The experimental results were published with much fanfare last week in the journal Science.

The founders don't know yet if the discovery of so-called "hibernation-on-demand" in mice will show benefits in treating human diseases. But they think that someday temporarily slowing human metabolism could be used to reduce the body's need for oxygen and lengthen the window of time for treating patients with trauma, stroke, cardiac arrest or cancer. It might also be useful in surgery.

Roth acknowledged the hurdles are significant, predicting it will probably take at least five years to pave the way for human trials. "We will need to show abundant evidence that what we're doing is safe," Roth said.

Scientists have been able to induce hibernation in yeast, worms and zebrafish but not previously in mammals. Now that Roth has demonstrated it with healthy mice, Ikaria's first task will be to show it can be done safely in larger animals.

Dr. Gregory Jurkovich, chief of trauma surgery at Harborview Medical Center, said such a technique would need to prove it doesn't lead to brain damage, doesn't alter the blood's ability to clot, and doesn't diminish the ability to fight off infections — problems seen in some hypothermia studies.

He said the concept is "intriguing" but likely "miles away" from clinical trials.

Still, investors are thinking big about ways to exploit the technology.

"If this pans out in a broad way, it's hard to even say what to compare it to — antibiotics?" said Robert Nelsen, a managing director of Arch Venture Partners, which invested in Ikaria.

The other investors are Venrock Associates, the venture firm of the Rockefeller family; 5AM Ventures; Aravis Ventures; and Washington Research Foundation.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is receiving an equity stake in the company and stands to receive milestone payments and royalties if the technology makes progress.

The founding of Ikaria marks a milestone for The Hutch, as the first venture-backed biotech company to spin out of the center in five years.

Ikaria's board of directors includes high-profile names in biotechnology: Wilbur Gantz, a founder of Pathogenesis; Bennett Shapiro, a former Merck executive vice president of external research; and Vaughn Kailian, a founder of COR Therapeutics, as board chairman. The investors are also represented.

Roth will also have a say in decisions at the company with a seat on the board, while maintaining his full-time research job and government funding at The Hutch.

The company does not yet have a full-time chief executive. It has hired Kevin Thomaselli, a former scientist at Idun Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, as chief technology officer.

The financing is being formally announced today, at the beginning of Invest Northwest, the annual investment showcase for the region's leading biotech companies.

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or ltimmerman@seattletimes.com


Founded: 2005

Located: Seattle

What it does: The company's founding scientist has put mice into a temporary state of hibernation. Backers hope that someday, using similar techniques to slow human metabolism could reduce the body's need for oxygen, lengthening the window of time to treat patients with trauma, stroke or other diseases.

Investors: Arch Venture Partners, Venrock Associates, 5AM Ventures, Aravis Ventures, Washington Research Foundation. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has an equity stake.

Board of directors: Vaughn Kailian, Mark Roth, Robert Nelsen, Wilbur Gantz, Charles Homcy, Bryan Roberts, Andrew Schwab, Bennett Shapiro, David Shaw.