It's not developing drugs that bind to RNA, or morphing RNA into a therapeutic — this Cambridge startup has scored $63M to work on RNA-modifying proteins
First came the concept of epigenetics, the study of chemical modifications made to the blueprint of life — DNA — to switch genes on or off. Then, scientists realized DNA’s cousin RNA could also be subject to such chemical manipulation, and the field of “epitranscriptomics” was born in the last decade.
As researchers found that chemical modifications across a cell’s RNA were seemingly distorted in some cancers, a trio of biotechnology companies spawned: Storm Therapeutics, Accent Therapeutics and Gotham Therapeutics. On Thursday, 2017-founded Accent raised $63 million in a Series B round, led by EcoR1 Capital.
Chuan He, a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, first proposed the field of RNA epigenetics, suggesting methyl modifications on RNA can be removed, in 2012. Five years later, along with Stanford’s Howard Chang, and former Epizyme and GSK executive Robert Copeland, Accent was born.
“What we’re doing is different from a lot of other companies and other researchers in the RNA field. There are many companies that are using RNA as a therapeutic itself, there are some companies that are drugging the RNA directly,” noted Accent chief Shakti Narayan in an interview.
Akin to accents in music that are used to modulate tunes, the company was christened Accent Therapeutics to reflect modifications to chemical entities that affect RNA molecules, which can ultimately transform the function of the molecule.
“What we’ve focused on is targeting the enzymes that work on RNA, and thereby, we’re actually able to take advantage of several decades of medicinal chemistry experience and expertise that has developed to specifically target enzymes. So, we’re not having to take on a whole bunch of modality risk in our approach,” Narayan said.
The fresh injection of funding will be used to take Accent’s lead experimental programs — which are focused on two proteins that are understood to modify RNA, METTL3 and ADAR1 in AML and solid tumors, respectively — into the clinic.
But, as with all best-laid plans, Covid-19 has put a spanner in the works.
“We’ve been able to increase our work via CROs in certain locations, versus decreasing it and other locations depending on the impact of the virus in particular locations, which has been extremely helpful for us to be able to keep our programs advancing towards the clinic,” Narayan said. “It’s certainly not optimal, but it’s been a great way to mitigate the impact of the disease on our overall operational model.”
The new round of financing included the participation by GV, AbbVie Ventures, The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, NS Investment and Droia Ventures as well as existing investors, Atlas Venture and The Column Group. The Lexington, Massachusetts-based company, which currently has 25 employees, raised $40 million at launch in 2018.