A new biotech company that aims to harness the immune system to treat a range of skin diseases will launch on Monday with $100mn in seed financing.
Alys Pharma, based in Boston and Geneva, has been founded by Medicxi, the European healthcare investment fund, with six university scientists who together have a substantial minority shareholding in the company.
New technology — particularly the application of immunology — is transforming dermatology from a low-margin pharmaceutical backwater into a fast-growing, high-value market, said Francesco De Rubertis, executive chair of Alys. “We are poised to become a leader in immuno-dermatology, with a broad pipeline including 14 active R&D programmes.”
Alys has set up six operating subsidiaries — three in the US and three in the UK — focusing on different types of skin disease and treatment mechanisms. Their targets include psoriasis, atopic dermatitis (eczema), pruritus (itching) and vitiligo (loss of skin colour).
Psoriasis drugs were the first to turn dermatology into a high value market, with sales of Stelara by Johnson & Johnson exceeding $10bn a year; four other psoriasis treatments have annual sales above $2.5bn. The next skin disorder to generate blockbusters was atopic dermatitis, led by Dupixent, developed by Regeneron and Sanofi, with 2023 sales up 34 per cent to €10.7bn.
“Alys seems very well placed to seize on the opportunity presented by biological therapies for skin diseases that have a target in the immune system,” said Christopher Griffiths, director of the Manchester Centre for Dermatology Research, who is not involved in the company. “They can now be approached in a focused way without collateral damage to the rest of the immune system.
“There is a multibillion-dollar untapped market, because these drugs are still used only for people who have very severe disease — wrongly in my view — when actually any form or severity of the disease would respond equally well,” Griffiths added.
“We are not fighting for a share of existing markets,” said Thibaud Portal, Alys’s chief operating officer. “New dermatology products will grow the market. For example, in atopic dermatitis, penetration of advanced therapies today is 9 to 10 per cent and is projected to increase to 20 per cent; we can address the huge number of patients who are currently without treatment.”
Alys is pursuing a remarkable variety of approaches, said Griffiths. One technology being developed is siRNA (short interfering RNA), which aims to shut down genes responsible for unwanted inflammation in the skin. The company’s scientists are also working with antibodies, peptides and more traditional small molecules. Some of the drugs will be injected into or under the skin, while others are applied as a topical gel.
One innovative avenue of research is to suppress itch, a maddening but medically neglected manifestation of skin disorders that exacerbates the problem because it leads to scratching. One Alys scientist, Brian Kim of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, investigates the biology of itch — and how to stop it.
Alys aims to deliver early clinical trial results for seven to 10 skin treatments over the next three years. The business plan envisaged raising $200mn or so in a series A round later this year, said De Rubertis. “There is a lot of interest from external parties who want to get a part of this immuno-dermatology pipeline.”