Secreted Protein Map Juvena Finds Path to $41 Million for New Regenerative Medicines - MedCity News

Juvena Therapeutics co-founders Jeremy O’Connell, Chief Scientific Officer (left) and CEO Hanadi Youssef.

Many drugs work by targeting proteins. Biologics have shown that proteins can also be turned into therapies—in some cases using proteins from the body. Juvena Therapeutics works with a type of protein from the body that can produce regenerative effects. The startup now has $41 million to advance its process, including a lead program to develop a rare muscle disease.

The Series A funding announced on Tuesday, is jointly led by Mubadala Capital and Horizons Ventures.

Juvena works with secreted proteins, a class of proteins produced by cells. Released in the blood or in the local tissue microenvironment, these proteins have medicinal properties, causing all kinds of biochemical reactions. Hanadie Yousef, co-founder and CEO of Redwood City, California-based Juvena, said the properties her company is interested in are tissue regeneration and repair. For Yusef, the work is personal. Her late father developed an age-related chronic disease in his 40s that lasted for the last three decades of his life, she said. After witnessing her father’s health decline, she found her passion in building a company.

“What inspired me to start Juvena was knowing that there are therapies that allow us to age healthily and really target these chronic degenerative diseases to rejuvenate life,” Youssef said.

Secreted proteins already have a place in medicine and some of them have become blockbuster products. Insulin is a secreted protein. Amgen’s anemia drug Epogen is based on a secreted glycoprotein hormone called erythropoietin. Although the secreted proteins have natural medicinal properties, the pharmaceutical industry has failed to exploit their full therapeutic potential, Youssef said. These proteins are in low abundance, making it difficult for scientists to purify and characterize them. Secreted proteins are also structurally complex. Therefore, there is much about secreted proteins that remains unknown.

Juvena aims to fill knowledge gaps with a first focus on secreted regenerative proteins produced by stem cells. The company’s technology maps these proteins and connects them to the cells and parts of the body where they have a disease-reversing effect. This map shows the receptors that secreted proteins bind to, pointing the way for scientists to develop new drugs. Juvena drugs themselves are both engineered secreted proteins and biologics designed to modulate these proteins by targeting specific receptors.

Youssef’s research focuses on the biology of aging and the mechanisms underlying degeneration. She began this work at UC Berkeley, where she received her PhD, and continued at Stanford University, where she was a postdoctoral researcher. Exploring the regenerative potential of secreted proteins planted the seed in her mind that this research could translate into regenerative therapies for various diseases, she said.

Although Youssef brought expertise in secreted proteins, she needed someone with more technology. She found that in Jeremy O’Connell, Juvena’s co-founder and chief scientific officer. O’Connell is in the field of proteomics and systems biology. After postdoctoral work at Harvard, O’Connell did research at Stanford, where he and Youssef met. They formed Juvena in 2017.

The initial targets of Juvena’s disease are neuromuscular disorders. The lead program JUV-161 is in preclinical development for myotonic dystrophy type 1 (DM1), a rare genetic muscle disease that currently has no FDA-approved treatment. Several biotechs are developing genetic drugs for DM1. Juvena’s therapy takes a different approach by targeting tissue regeneration signaling pathways that are down-regulated by the disease. Youssef said the Juvena drug could complement genetic therapies for DM1 by slowing disease progression and potentially repairing damaged tissue.

“We’re not trying to edit the mutation, we’re trying to provide the signals our body needs to promote regeneration and repair,” she said.

Juvena’s therapies will be chronic therapies. But Youssef added that Juvena will borrow from engineering techniques that are advancing diabetes drugs beyond daily dosing with products that can now be dosed weekly, biweekly or even monthly.

The DM1 program is currently primarily funded with $4 million from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Youssef said this therapy could be ready for an exploratory new drug application in early to mid-2024. The new funding will be used to advance this program to Phase 1/2 testing. Capital will also be applied to mapping secreted proteins across multiple therapeutic areas, linking them to more disorders where they could potentially reverse disease.

Youssef said she has had some discussions with larger companies that could be potential partners with the company, either using the company’s technology for their own drug research or partnering in one of the biotech programs. In addition to DM1, Juvena has preclinical programs in muscular dystrophy and Duchenne atrophy. The startup’s discovery-stage research includes programs for osteoarthritis and cardiometabolic disorders. Youssef said Juvena aims to advance two to three additional candidates into preclinical development.

The Series A round brings Juvena’s total raised to date to $50 million. Other disclosed investors in the latest funding include Bison Ventures; Manta Ray Ventures; IRONGRAY; Alumni Ventures; Plum Alley; Jeff Dean, Senior Vice President of Google Research and Health; Transform VC; Carl Pfleger; BoxOne Ventures; Cross the VC; Union; and Felicis.

Photo by Juvena Therapeutics

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