WINSTON-SALEM … A drug development company spun out of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine has landed $1.9 million in first-round venture capital and is looking for more money.

Academy Funds of Charlotte led the investment in Kucera Pharmaceuticals, which is building a platform of chemical compounds that improves the effectiveness of anti-viral drugs. Piedmont Angel Network announced its participation in the round two months ago, and other angel investors also took part.

Kucera Chief Executive Russ Read, a former Glaxo Wellcome executive, says the company is holding the funding round open for now in hopes that more investors will take part. One venture firm Read declines to name is looking closely at putting money in the company, which would lead to a final closing, he says.

“The bulk of the money is in the bank,” he says. “It’s been a tough slug. In addition to the support of Academy, we really pleased with the local support we’ve gotten through investors in this area.”

The funding will go toward continued research into the technology, first developed by Louis Kucera, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Wake Forest. He found that attaching fatty compounds called phospholipids to drugs reduced the drug’s toxicity, improved its delivery to diseased cells and extended its potency.

Improving AZT
The company’s lead compound, INK-20, is a combination of a phospholipid with the AIDS drug AZT. Preliminary tests show the pairing has anti-HIV activity 20 times greater than AZT alone and an increased safety profile.

Read said INK-20 goes beyond treating HIV strains that have become resistant to AZT, noting researchers have seen biological activity from the phospholipids themselves. “We want to nail down that claim,” he says.

Kucera also another compound to fight HIV and and anti-cancer drug in its pipeline, and the company is synthesizing chemicals to develop more potential candidates, Read says. It also is working with pharmaceutical firms, using its technology to beef up the effectiveness of existing drugs for diseases like hepatitis.

“Their technology seems really promising at this point,” Nick Stefanovic of Academy Funds says. “they have a different approach to targeting diseases, and we’ve seen results that could lead to really good products in the future.”

Academy provided seed funding for Kucera a year ago when it came out of Wake Forest, and that money was rolled into the first-round deal, Stefanovic says.

The company plans to add some chemists in the near future to speed the research effort, although Read says he wants the five-employee firm to remain “pretty virtual” to stretch its money as far as possible.

He also is beginning to lay the groundwork for Kucera’s second funding round, which will be in the $5 million range. He plans to start talking with investors this fall.

Kucera Pharmaceuticals: