Bioscience

Drug firm opens Valley office

November 13, 2007

By Flinn Foundation

Company seeks investors to help develop cancer drug

[Source: Ken Alltucker, The Arizona Republic] – A small Indiana-based drug-development company seeking to develop an “off switch” to cancer has established a Scottsdale office as ground zero in its battle against the deadly disease. Executives of Semafore Pharmaceuticals said the Scottsdale office, at Loop 101 and Via de Ventura, will employ about 20 workers within one year but could grow based on drug-development successes. Semafore has raised more than $19 million and employs about 20 at its Indianapolis headquarters.

The company’s Valley office will focus on business development and provide clinical and regulatory support. The company eventually may add a local research lab, too. Semafore Chief Executive Officer Edward Jacobs said the company tapped Arizona because of the state’s focus on growing the bioscience industry, as well as the expertise from the likes of Dr. Daniel Von Hoff and Arizona Cancer Center Director David Alberts, local cancer researchers. Jacobs, who left the Silicon Valley biotech company SuperGen Inc. to join Semafore, has a Scottsdale home.

Raising money

Jacobs said the company’s immediate goal is to attract investors and support the development of its potential cancer drug, SF1126. The company wants to raise up to $25 million from venture funds and other investors. “This business is very money-intensive,” Jacobs said. “The idea now is to raise funds as quickly and as cheaply as possible.”Semafore’s chief pitch to venture-capital firms and other sophisticated investors is that the company’s lead drug candidate, called a PI3 kinase inhibitor, could pave an important new path in the fight against cancer. Its drug-development approach seeks to halt cancer growth by disrupting diseased cells. The company will seek funding from Silicon Valley investors as well as a new Valley-based venture fund, Translational Accelerator LLC, which seeks to fund Arizona bioscience companies.

‘Master switch of cancer’

“Many people have called it the master switch of cancer,” said Von Hoff, a nationally known cancer researcher and founder of the Translational Genomics Research Institute. “It’s a real important target. If you can modify it or knock it out, you can have an effect on cancer.”Cancer cells grow by communicating with healthy cells. If that communication can be halted, as Semafore wants its drug to do, researchers believe it would effectively stop the disease from spreading. Such an approach varies from traditional cancer treatment such as chemotherapy, which kills cancer cells along with healthy cells in an indiscriminate fashion. The company already has received Food and Drug Administration approval to test the safety of its drug in a human clinical trial. That Phase 1 safety trial is under way at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale and at Indiana University Cancer Center.

Next study in 2008

If the drug proves safe, the company will initiate a Phase 2 study next year to test its effectiveness, Jacobs said. Von Hoff helped design the clinical-trial approach, and TGen’s clinical-research unit in Scottsdale has assisted the clinical trial. Arizona’s biotech leaders say Semafore’s announcement is a sign that private-sector companies are noticing the region’s push to grow a research-based economy.Other early-stage drug-development companies that have relocated to Scottsdale and Phoenix over the past couple of years include InNexus Biotechnology, InSys Therapeutics and Systems Medicine. “I think it says that people are really beginning to recognize the depth and breadth of the expertise that is here in Arizona,” said Bob Eaton, president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Bioindustry Association. “This is another signal of the growth and strengthening of the local industry.”