Keith Dionne's Casma lines up a $50M venture round to continue the preclinical work on a cellular recycling program
Two years after launching out of Third Rock’s incubator, Casma Therapeutics has landed a $50 million Series B for preclinical development of its muscular dystrophy and Autophagy Degrader Platform (ADP) programs.
Casma kicked off in 2018 with a $58.5 million Series A and a staff of experts in autophagy, the cell’s “garbage disposal.” The biotech’s TRPML1 agonist program for muscular dystrophy is expected to hit the clinic in 2022, according to CEO Keith Dionne, and the ADP program is about a year behind that.
“If you imagined your house, where you plug up the garbage disposal, plug up the toilets and stop taking out the trash, you would find, probably fairly quickly, the house would become unlivable. And that’s essentially the same thing that happens inside of a cell,” Dionne said. “If we don’t have these mechanisms of maintaining homeostasis to clear out materials that were maybe used once, or maybe mutated to begin with but otherwise built up inside of the cell — the cell becomes dysfunctional.”
The biotech seeks to boost the cell’s recycling system, which could treat a range of illnesses, including lysosomal storage and inflammatory disorders, liver and muscle diseases, and neurodegeneration.
The discovery of autophagy mechanisms won the Nobel Prize in 2016. While there are currently no approved drugs in the field, some have shown to enhance autophagy as a side effect.
“When we launched the company, it was really with the realization that we thought we could, and that we needed to, develop drugs that were specific to the induction of autophagy, not hitting autophagy as one of the 5 or 10 other pathways that they (other drugs) were touching on,” Dionne said. “Looking at the preclinical literature it became very apparent that the number of diseases that are impacted by this is quite large. And again, that is part of the excitement of getting going.”
The company will use the Series B funding to advance both its ADP and TRPML1 programs. TRPML1 regulates the repair of the plasma membrane of muscle cells following damage, addressing the “core pathology in multiple forms of muscular dystrophy,” according to Casma.
The biotech’s scientific founders include autophagy expert Beth Levine, who died earlier this year after a fight with breast cancer. The former Center for Autophagy Research director was known for discovering the mammalian autophagy gene, BECN1. The team also includes Andrea Ballabio, a leader in transcriptional regulation of lysosomal biogenesis and autophagy; James Hurley, who’s studied the structure of autophagy complexes; and Vir Biotechnology CSO and EVP of research Herbert “Skip” Virgin, who’s researched the role of autophagy genes in inflammation and immunity.
The Series B was led by The Column Group, and joined by Third Rock, Eventide Asset Management, Schroder Adveq, and other undisclosed investors.
“It’s exciting to work in a new space of science, opening up a whole new field, and then to see that start to translate into therapeutics. So that’s pulled us through this whole Covid period and … kept us going through the entire process to make progress on them. So (there’s) just a palpable sense of excitement around the company,” Dionne said.