After safety setbacks, job cuts, Imara sells its top drug to a startup

After a major research failure forced Imara to lay off almost all of its workforce, the Boston biotechnology company is offloading its most advanced experimental medicine to a well-funded startup.

Imara was formed by an orphan drug development entity known as Cydan Development that New Enterprise Associates, a prominent life sciences investor, put together in 2013. The company raised $75 million in an initial public offering in 2020 aiming to develop a drug known as tovinontrine for the blood disorders sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia, as well as a type of heart failure. Shares climbed as high as $47 apiece in June 2020 on early promise for the drug, which Imara originally acquired from Danish firm Lundbeck.

Tovinontrine failed its key tests in April, however, showing no significant benefit for patients with sickle cell disease or beta-thalassemia in two mid-stage trials. Imara then stopped development of tovinontrine in all indications and began a strategic review.

Enter Cardurion Pharmaceuticals, which specializes in cardiovascular drug development, has a partnership in place with Takeda and last year got a $300 million private investment from Bain Capital. Cardurion is already testing a similar type of drug prospect to tovinontrine, known as a PDE9 inhibitor, in a Phase 2 trial in heart failure. It’s now adding Imara’s drug and related assets to its portfolio, agreeing to pay about $35 million for tovinontrine and assets related to the program, plus as much as $60 million more if certain development, regulatory or commercial goals are met.

In the meantime, Imara is evaluating options for the future, according to a regulatory filing Wednesday. It restructured retention agreements with both its CEO and CFO to see through the asset sale or possibly a merger with another company.

Imara previously said it would have only six employees remaining by the end of the second quarter, down from 41 at the end of 2021. The company also has an early experimental drug called IMR-261 that may have potential for treating disorders related to hemoglobin and iron overload.

Imara shares traded at just over $2 apiece Monday morning. The company priced its 2020 IPO at $16 per share.

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