VCs seek to gain from pain

Venture capitalists have been feeling a lot of pain this past year with the market downturn. Maybe that’s why they’ve been investing so much in treatments to dull that sensation.

Over the past two months, VCs have invested more than $86 million in at least five companies developing novel treatments for alleviating pain symptoms. Just last week Afferent Pharmaceuticals announced that it raised a $23 million Series A round to develop treatments for chronic pain based on research licensed from Roche.

Venture firms Pappas Ventures and Third Rock Ventures co-led the financing round, with participation from Domain Associates and New Leaf Venture Partners. The funding will go toward accelerating development of pain therapies that work with a targeted class of receptors, or protein molecules that respond to neurotransmitters. In particular, Afferent says it will focus on a receptor called P2X3 which is shown to be highly specific to nerve fibers that transmit sensations of pain in response to inflammation or injury, particularly in chronic conditions.

“The thesis is that by targeting the mechanisms that are unique to those pain sensitive fibers, one can target symptoms and manage pain in a way that isn’t addressed by current medication,” says Anthony Ford, a former vice president of research at Roche who founded Afferent and serves as its chief scientist.

Ford says that the central aim is twofold: to develop medications with fewer side effects than current offerings and to develop treatments for chronic pain sufferers whose symptoms are not treatable with existing pharmaceuticals.

The company plans to use the $23 million round to fund three clinical trials, says Kevin Starr, a Third Rock partner serving as Afferent’s chairman. The company hasn’t settled on focus areas yet, he says, though possibilities include treatments for chronic joint pain and neuropathic pain.

In any case, Afferent is targeting a growth industry.

“We think pain is still one of the great underserved areas,” Starr says. “If you look at what’s in a medicine chest today, they’re derivatives of drugs discovered 30 or 40 years ago.”

Research firm Decision Resources estimated in a November report that the neuropathic pain drug market—driven by the launches of several novel therapies—will increase from $6 billion in 2008 to $9.7 billion in 2018 in the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and Japan. Although none of the emerging therapies are expected to displace key first-line therapies, the report concludes, many will offer new mechanisms of action and improved side-effect profiles when compared to currently leading treatments.

In addition to Afferent, two other developers of pain treatments raised big rounds recently. Menlo Park, Calif.-based Spinal Modulation, which develops a spinal cord stimulator system to treat patients suffering from chronic back pain, raised $27 million in November from MedVenture Associates, Johnson & Johnson, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, De Novo Ventures and DFJ InCube Ventures.

Meanwhile, San Diego-based Zogenix, which develops medicines to treat central nervous system disorders and pain, raised $35 million in December, bringing total funding since 2006 to $150 million. Backers in the most recent round include Scale Venture Partners, Chicago Growth Partners, Domain Associates, Abingworth Management, Thomas McNerney & Partners and Clarus Ventures.

AIKO Biotechnology and Neuros Medical raised smaller rounds. Portland, Maine-based Aiko, an early stage drug discovery company focused on pain management and opioid addiction, raised $1.2 million in December from Small Enterprise Growth Fund, Action Equity and Supply Chain Ventures. Cleveland-based Neuros Medical, a developer of technology for treating chronic pain and spasticity, raised $1.8 million in late October from backers including North Coast Angel Fund, Ohio Tech Angels Fund and Glengary Ventures. —Joanna Glasner