With new cash, Durham biopharma startup Emergo targets a big enemy: Flu
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Who knew there might be a new way to get through to the flu?
Consider Moise Khayrallah, Ph.D., and Robin Hyde-DeRuyscher, Ph.D.
Emergo, the Durham-based biopharmaceutical startup they co-founded in 2016, is banking on its experimental drug norketotifen (NKT) to manage the symptoms of flu and flu-like illnesses. It uses a unique mechanism of action. Unlike current anti-viral flu treatments that work against the specific virus itself, NKT is designed to moderate the body’s natural immune response.
“We believe, and there is evidence to back this up, that what really causes the symptoms of flu – and respiratory viruses that behave like flu – is not the virus itself but an overreaction by the immune system,” Khayrallah explained in an interview with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.
“By reining in the body’s immune response, norketotifen may help spare patients the miserable symptoms and complications that can lead to hospitalization and even death.”
Emergo has just received $3.5 million in equity backing from 77 investors. The money will be used for a new clinical study to see how the therapy works on patients with flu-like symptoms, Khayrallah said. The study follows the successful completion of a Phase 2b clinical trial. If more financial support is needed later, those same investors have agreed to provide up to $1.5 million in additional funding.
This fall, the company plans to recruit more than 300 volunteers at clinics and urgent care centers around the country who are experiencing flu-like symptoms. Those individuals will receive NKT pills for seven days and their conditions will be monitored for two weeks to measure the effects of the drug.
Khayrallah said one of the positives of NKT is that, unlike the anti-virals that treat specific viruses, it can be used to treat a variety of flu-like illnesses. That includes some regularly occurring coronaviruses, although he added that no studies are planned yet to see if the drug might work against COVID-19.
If all goes well, the company will have enough data by next spring to show proof of concept. At that point, Emergo will enlist a partner that can advance NKT to Phase 3 clinical trials and eventually handle marketing and sales of the product.
NCBiotech supported Emergo’s development with a $75,000 Company Inception Loan in 2017 and a $500,000 Strategic Investment Loan in 2019. Khayrallah is the company’s CEO and Hyde-DeRuyscher is chief scientific officer. NKT is Emergo’s single drug candidate.
Khayrallah is no stranger to the Research Triangle’s biotechnology industry. He’s a well-known successful yet low-key entrepreneur and philanthropist who has co-founded six different start-up biotech companies in a little more than a decade.
He has contributed significantly to the Triangle’s business and cultural growth. In 2014, he established the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies at North Carolina State University. He has served as chair of Carolina Ballet, as a member of the NCBiotech board of directors, and served with Go Global NC, The Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, the UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor’s Philanthropic Council, and the UNC School of Education Board of Visitors.