Startups, Venture

Black Diamond turns down an open stretch of R&D highway, headed to a showdown with oncogenes

As one of the lead scientists involved in the development of Tarceva, David Epstein had plenty of opportunity to consider the many ways in which cancer can evade a drug and kill patients.

David Epstein

For the last 4 years, Epstein has been quietly working away at the problem, and he’s taken a turn down a stretch of R&D highway which he believes can lead to a full pipeline of new cancer drugs that can broach that issue for particular subsets of patients. 

Epstein and co-founder Elizabeth Buck have been building a company — called Black Diamond — based in New York but working with Versant’s Ridgeline discovery engine in Basel. And from today, they’re planning to start making some noise about the work they are doing.

Versant handed over a $20 million A round to fire up the work last year, giving Epstein a chance to grow the crew to 15 or so. And they’re working on a second round now that is designed to get them down the road to the clinic, with plans to build the team to the 40-50 range.

Jumping past the kinase domain inhibitors — TKIs —that have been used to counter the work of cancer-driving oncogenes, Black Diamond has its eye primarily on allosteric mutations. 

Find the right allosteric oncogenes driving cancer, they say, and you can develop inhibitors for them that work across tumor types.

“We have two programs,” says Epstein, “allosteric HER2 and EGFR driver mutations that occur across a range of tissue type tumors, so we can be tissue agnostic.”

The big idea at Black Diamond is that there are “whole sets of oncogenic lesions outside the ATP binding site that are activated by common mechanisms and are inhibited by a single class of our drugs,” says the CEO. “Our platform generates single molecules able to treat entire baskets of mutations that otherwise would have been deemed unactionable.”

Alex Mayweg

“This was a phenomenal idea of precision medicine,” says Versant partner Alex Mayweg, who’s happy to play a big role in assisting the creation of Black Diamond.

By this time next year, Epstein plans to have the B round in the bank and the first of their programs in the clinic, with the second to follow in 2020.

A lot of their work relies on the spreading use of sequencing to allow for personalized therapy. 

“This will take the unactionable and make it actionable,” says Epstein. “We think this is a potential huge application.”


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