Peer Review

Laura Shawver hits the ground running, scouting new investors for tiny Synthorx

Synthorx doesn’t make the news a lot. But when it does, it makes sure people pay attention.

The synthetic biology startup came out with two big announcements this week: Laura Shawver is taking its helm as CEO, president and director; scientific founder Floyd Romesberg has published a paper in Nature discussing how a semi-synthetic organism can translate DNA with two additional bases (X and Y) into novel proteins.

“You can’t do an IPO or a big venture raise with a part-time CEO bootstrapped across three or four companies,” Jay Lichter of Avalon Ventures, which backs the company, told Endpoints News on Monday. “The tech has had a major inflection, and as a result we need full-time A-team talent to run the company.”

Shawver, a well-known exec who led Cleave Biosciences through two sizable rounds of funding, steps right up to the task. She is already thinking about taking the first programs into clinical development, as well as seeking partnerships where Synthorx can help tweak therapeutics using new protein candidates the company calls “Synthorins.”

“It’s not very often that one gets to participate in something that is potentially game-changing for therapeutics and likely will — this platform technology will be utilized for years to come,” she told Endpoints.

She decided to take the job after meeting with Romesberg, the Scripps researcher who first came up with the way to incorporate new DNA components in E. Coli genes. That led to the inception of the company in 2014.

Over breakfast at La Jolla — near one of Shawver’s favorite surf spots — they talked about the science and its applicability on therapeutics.

“I was convinced pretty quickly actually,” she said.

Given the waves that Romesberg’s paper made, that’s perhaps not surprising. The additional base pair can, in principle, encode for an extra 152 novel amino acids that can make proteins with unique pharmacological properties. That’s a big leap from the current 20.

The company is not talking specifics outside of its lead program in interleukin-2, a double-edged sword of an anti-cancer drug. But Shawver confirmed that it is currently focused on oncology and autoimmune diseases.

Marcos Milla

Its 14 staffers, including SVP of research and Janssen vet Marcos Milla, whom Shawver describes as a “drug hunter,” have been hard at work teasing out where exactly the non-natural amino acids should – and shouldn’t – go. In the case of IL-2, by placing non-natural amino acids in specific locations, Shawver said, the platform technology can tune up efficacy and tune down the toxicity.

“There’s only a few places that actually tune the pharmacology the way we need it to … so this has been a meticulous task that they have undertaken,” Shawver explained.

For Shawver, moving from Cleave to Synthorx also meant leaving her home in San Francisco and returning to her other home in San Diego.

“One of the great things about biotech is that we all move onto other jobs from time to time, and that creates our network that we utilize in our next jobs,” she said.

With two FDA-approved drugs under her belt, her previous experience has given her much to utilize.

“They have gotten very far down the path with very little cash, it is time to do a more significant financing so we can take this to clinical development,” she said.

Image: Laura Shawver.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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