A Carmel-based company believes it’s within months of having a potential cure for the hepatitis B virus in clinical trials—potentially giving millions of people in the U.S. a treatment for a virus that can be deadly. Assembly Biosciences, Inc. says the impact could be even greater internationally. The virus, which is the leading cause of chronic liver disease and liver transplants, infects up to 300 million people worldwide, with 90 million of those patients in China alone.
“There’s a huge population of chronically-infected patients; these patients go on to many types of disorders that cause somewhere between 500,000 and one million deaths each year,” says Assembly Biosciences President and Chief Executive Officer Derek Small. “It’s a very serious disease.”
Small says most scientists have attempted to cure the disease by targeting the virus, which exists in the liver. However, Assembly Biosciences says it uses a different strategy by targeting an HBV core protein within the virus’ DNA; the unique approach is based on discoveries made by Indiana University Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry Professor Dr. Adam Zlotnick.
“We have the ability to target HBV like nobody else has had to date,” says Small, “and now we have three different drugs in development for a combination to cure HBV.”
The company started in 2012 as Assembly Pharmaceuticals, and after collecting $1.5 million in seed funding, its leaders soon realized the resources of a larger company would speed the pace of commercialization. In 2014, it merged with New York-based Ventrus Biosciences, a public firm that provided a $25 million cash infusion for the HBV platform, and a new company was born: Assembly Biosciences.
The merger also meant Assembly Biosciences now had two lead platforms: the HBV technology, as well as a microbiome therapeutic, which was Ventrus’ area of expertise. While Small acknowledges it’s unusual for a single company to have two unrelated platforms, he says it’s been good for business.
“When we merged the company two years ago, both [platforms] were very pre-clinical. Now, both will be going into the clinic within the next few months,” says Small. “We believe by end of year, the HBV [drug] will be in the clinic, and shortly after, we’ll have the microbiome platform in the clinic as well.”