In the second financing round announced in one day for an immunometabolism startup, Johns Hopkins spinout Dracen Pharmaceuticals just wrapped up a $36 million investment deal from Deerfield.
This money was part of a bigger $40 million Series A round, which got reported before the deal actually closed.
The company, founded just a year ago, is developing novel glutamine antagonists that work as inhibitors of cancer metabolism, choking out tumors and their normal metabolic function.
The tech is based on work by Barbara Slusher, a professor of neurology, and Jonathan Powell, a professor of oncology, at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The researchers altered the structure of an experimental drug that enhanced its ability to slip through the blood-brain barrier. Their research was published in August 2016 in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, which showed in animal studies that the altered drug structure resulted in 10 times better drug delivery to the brains compared with the rest of animals’ bodies.
The drug they tweaked is called 6-diazo-5-oxo-L-norleucine, or DON for short. It’s been used to shrink advanced tumors in clinical trials, but its damage to the gastrointestinal system prevented it from moving forward.
“We wondered whether we could make a safer and more tolerable form of DON by enhancing its brain penetration and limiting its exposure to the rest of the body and, thus, toxicity,” Slusher said in a 2016 statement.
Dracen has an exclusive agreement with Hopkins and the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in Prague to license the jointly-owned tech and develop proprietary drug candidates.
Dracen intends to develop its glutamine antagonists alone and in combo studies with immune checkpoint inhibitors like anti-PD-1 and anti-PD-L1. The startup’s platform might also have applications in autoimmune disorders, inflammatory disease and central nervous system conditions.
Dracen’s CEO Tom Estok said Dracen might be in the clinic by 2019. The company will use the new round from Deerfield to takes its cancer programs that direction.
“We are pleased to partner with Dracen and its founders from Johns Hopkins University,” said Jonathan Leff, a Deerfield partner, in a statement. “We see great potential for Dracen’s approach to deliver improved outcomes for cancer patients and potentially extend the benefits of immuno-oncology therapies.”
The field of immunometabolism appears to be heating up, with Third Rock debuting Rheos Medicines just this morning. Rheos is working on a platform tech that it hopes will deliver multiple targets spanning autoimmune diseases and cancer.
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