Harvard big-shots Kevin Eggan and Clifford Woolf launch ALS startup with exclusive Q-State tech
A group of well-known Harvard professors has launched a new ALS spinout to take on research Big Pharma wasn’t tackling fast enough.
The new company, called QurAlis (pronounced “cure-al-is”), was founded by a couple of stem cell pioneers at Harvard: Kevin Eggan (the guy who developed the first ALS patient-derived stem cell models) and Clifford Woolf. The duo teamed up with two other co-founders, including QurAlis’ CEO Kasper Roet and Jonathan Fleming, who heads up Eggan’s other startup Q-State Biosciences.
Roet tells me he worked with Eggan and Woolf in years past, but it was always in the context of large pharmaceutical companies.
“These pharmas tend to reorganize and the program we were running would never reach the end goal,” Roet said. “So I asked Kevin and Clifford if we could do something ourselves.”
QurAlis, founded in 2016, has been quietly working out of a coworking space in Cambridge, MA, called LabCentral after winning free space there during an Amgen-sponsored innovation competition. QurAlis is stepping out with an undisclosed round of seed money from Amgen, Alexandria, and MP Healthcare Venture Management.
As the company’s name rather directly suggests, QurAlis hopes to find cures for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a motor neuron disease that continues to frustrate researchers for its complexity. As Roet describes it, ALS is rather like cancer in that its not one disease but a spectrum of disorders with varying underlying mechanisms.
“Not all ALS patients are the same, and if we want to be successful then we must make therapies targeted to what’s going wrong in that specific patient population,” Roet said.
QurAlis is developing three drugs that target subtypes of ALS, including a drug the company hopes would one-up GSK’s epilepsy drug Trobalt (retigabine), which was pulled from the market last June due to safety issues. QurAlis’ drug would treat overactive neurons and prevent cell death via excitotoxicity. QurAlis’ other two programs include a drug candidate that would restore a dysfunctional cellular waste clearance system that progressively poisons neurons, and a device to remove toxic proteins.
The company’s edge comes from a technology it’s licensed from Q-State Biosciences. In fact, QurAlis is a bit of a spinout from Q-State, with an exclusive license to use the company’s platform technology to develop therapies for ALS. Q-State’s claim to fame is a platform they call Optopatch, which uses laser technology to examine cell behavior. Specifically, they can look at a neuron and examine how it fires. And that’s useful for ALS research.
“We took stem cells from ALS patients and found out they fire differently from normal healthy people,” Roet said. “Optopatch is sensitive enough to pick up these firing cells, which is good for assessing if potential therapeutics can restore this firing and bring it back to normal levels.”
Interestingly, QurAlis has attracted a number of notable advisors, including the renowned structural biologist and drug design expert Manuel Navia, who was a founding scientist at Vertex Pharmaceuticals (and who you may remember as a key character from the book chronicling Vertex’s rise: “Billion Dollar Molecule”).
Navia is a drug hunter and the guy who solved the structure of the first drug for AIDS patients. Roet said he was eager to contribute the same effort for ALS patients.
“Watching Manuel work with our CSO Daniel Elbaum is like watching magic,” Roet said.
The company, which has only four full-timers on board, has enough funds in hand to carry the startup through to a Series A round.
Image: Kevin Eggan presenting at the 2016 FUSION symposium at Harvard University.YOUTUBE