An EU biotech looks to rewrite the ugly history of phosphatases, and it's taking $24M in funding to get off the ground
Long a lame duck in drug development, phosphatase enzymes are gaining some renewed interest after the success of a suite of Big Pharmas in hitting targets previously thought undruggable. Now, an EU biotech with some serious scientific backers is looking to bust the doors on phosphatases wide open.
Leaning on scientific know-how from two “Mr. Phosphatases” in the EU and US, Dutch biotech Anavo Therapeutics launched Thursday with $24 million in seed funding and the mission to develop modulators to rewrite the enzyme class’ ugly history of failure.
The scientific masterminds in question are Mathieu Bollen, a professor of molecular cell biology at the University of Leuven, and Nicholas Tonks, a professor of cancer research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Their work has contributed to a growing body of research indicating that phosphatases, a kinase counterpart responsible for adding or subtracting phosphate groups from proteins and other molecules, could be a ripe target for therapeutics, CSO Gerhard Müller told Endpoints News.
Once considered undruggable after a suite of failures in the late 1990s and early 2000s, phosphatases mostly languished as a target given how difficult it is to create a small molecule inhibitor for their active binding sites. But recent interest in the SHP2 phosphatase — AstraZeneca, Amgen, Novartis and Merck among others are crammed in there — has renewed hopes that the rest of the enzyme class could spin out gold.
The team is led by Müller and CEO Birgit Zech, who previously collaborated as co-founders of Gotham Therapeutics, which specializes in creating therapies to target RNA transcription. But the pair have known each longer than that, working together at a company called Axxima Pharmaceuticals back in the early 2000s. Their shared experience working with kinases pointed the two toward phosphatases, which they found deserving of a second look after the class’s “Waterloo moment” about two decades ago, Müller said.
Anavo will focus on allosteric receptor modulators for a range of phosphatase targets, some of which the biotech thinks are languishing on Big Pharma’s shelf.
“Pharma is there, they have an interest in the target class, but they really don’t want to touch them because they burnt their fingers heavily,” Zech said.
Like the kinases, novel phosphatase targets could have broad implications in a range of therapeutic areas. Overexpression of SHP2, for instance, has a downstream signaling effect on tumor cell growth. That known pathway effect means Anavo will target oncology first with the potential to expand out into a range of autoimmune conditions and rare disease.
“We really are sitting on a treasure box of highly validated targets,” Müller said.
Named for the Greek word for “to ignite” — think phosphorus’ spontaneous combustion at room temperature – Anavo is actively seeking sites for its team in the EU, Zech said. The team is hoping to enter an established biotech hub as it adds employees.