Venture capital firm Index Ventures has made its biggest investment yet in a life sciences firm after putting $11m behind biotech firm XO1 from its $200m life sciences fund backed by drugs companies Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

Index, which has 21 current life science investments in its portfolio, was the sole participant in the seed round for XO1. Kevin Johnson, partner at Index Ventures, said: “This represents the largest investment in a life science company by Index Ventures to date, underlining the transformative potential we see in this drug candidate.”

It is a model that has seen US-based peers Third Rock Ventures and Polaris Venture Partners reap success. Last month, Third Rock raised $516m for its third fund to launch 15 to 16 companies in life sciences, while Polaris has invested $220m in 18 businesses from the laboratory of Robert Langer, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

David Grainger, venture partner at Index, will act as the interim chief executive of the company and said the company would operate in virtual mode, without offices or labs, using out-sourced drug development expertise from across the globe in order to try and start human trials within two years. Grainger, who is based at the Babraham Research Campus, an institute that receives funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), added: “That approach gives us maximum flexibility to deliver high quality development faster and cheaper.”

XO1, a spin-out from the UK-based University of Cambridge, is developing thrombosis drugs licensed from the university and described as the “holy grail” of anticoagulants that would have a sizeable impact on preventing heart attacks and strokes.

Andy Walsh, director of Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s commercialisation unit, said: “We are delighted to license this exciting asset to XO1, backed by the experienced Index team.”

The investment comes from Index’s Life Science Fund, a €150m ($200m) vehicle established last year with the backing of pharmaceutical conglomerates Johnson & Johnson, which markets the oral anticoagulant Xarelto in the US, and UK-listed GlaxoSmithKline along with Index’s existing limited partners. The two companies also sit on the fund’s scientific advisory board, and consider pioneering biotech in areas with an unmet medical need, such as XO1’s anticoagulant drugs.

Grainger said: “This is the most exciting drug candidate I have seen in 20 years in the industry. It has the potential to save millions of lives.”

The funding will be used to develop Ichorcumab, an antibody created by researchers at the University of Cambridge and affiliated hospital Addenbrooke and named after Ichor, which in Greek mythology was the ethereal fluid in the blood of the gods that conveyed their immortality.

And potentially like another UK discovery, that of Pencillin by Alexander Fleming, it was a chance discovery. The antibody was originally discovered naturally occurring in a patient who arrived at Addenbrooke’s accident and emergency department with a head injury and anticoagulation consistent with severe haemophilia. Doctors initially thought the wound combined with high anticoagulation would prove lethal, but were surprised to find that the bleeding stopped normally.

Anticoagulants are currently used to treat thrombosis, a major cause of heart attacks and strokes, but are inhibited by bleeding side-effects they cause. However, as XO1’s ichorcumab nullifies the risk of hæmorrhaging, it could prove a major turning point in the treatment of the condition.

Trevor Baglin, a consultant haematologist at Addenbrooke, explained: “Undoubtedly higher doses of these anticoagulant drugs could prevent the majority of heart attacks and strokes. But we can’t give higher doses because the bleeding they would cause would itself be fatal. Ichorcumab has the potential to change all that.”