Rick Klausner fronts cash for his fungus outfit LifeMine and brings on Nobel laureate to further push cancer discovery
More than three years after launching with a $55 million Series A, fungus player LifeMine Therapeutics is back with a trifecta of new goodies: cash, a prominent investor and a Nobel laureate.
Rick Klausner is leading a $50 million Series B round with his Milky Way Investments for LifeMine, which he also co-founded, as it aims to expand its efforts in bringing fungi to the forefront of drug R&D, the company said Thursday. William Kaelin, who won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in understanding how cells sense and adapt to changes in oxygen, is also joining LifeMine’s board of directors.
“[Kaelin] has that broad base of experience in all of the activity going all the way from fundamental biology to drug discovery and company building,” CEO Greg Verdine told Endpoints News. “He’s a unique resource that brings all those insights and expertise to the company.”
Klausner originally helped co-found the company and serves as chairman, but this is the first time he’s participated in an investment round, Verdine added.
The big theory at LifeMine has to do with sequencing fungi in order to find new breakthroughs for cancer medicine. LifeMine says it aims to accomplish that by querying its massive fungal database using search algorithms and data science and locating which fungal genes can be used in small molecules based on how they encode natural products.
Over the last few years, LifeMine has built up its repository to comprise over 100,000 different fungal strains, which includes the entire collections of some major players like Merck and Pfizer. Currently, LifeMine researchers have two drug targets they’re looking at to advance into the clinic, but Verdine said it’s still too early to say when they might be ready to take that step.
Verdine also demurred on how exactly the two programs function and the mechanisms they utilize, saying only that they fall in the oncology and T cell proliferation areas. But he emphasized the importance of how quickly targets can be found and developed using LifeMine’s fungal database, given the similarities in human and fungal genomes.
“For the most part, let’s say from the zero yard line to the 90-yard line, the fungi are doing most of the drug discovery,” Verdine said. “It’s really about search and retrieval, and then if necessary, closing that last 10 yards to get over the goal line. That’s really unusual.”
The genes that serve as the jumping off point for these potential drugs often form clusters in specific parts of the fungal chromosomes, Verdine added, allowing for LifeMine to easily pinpoint where and how to look. Once researchers select an appropriate target, LifeMine’s computer forms an “avatar” model based on the fungus for how it can be used in humans.
Back in September 2017, Verdine said LifeMine was made up of only about a dozen scientists and five DNA specialists — the company now boasts 100 staffers. Verdine also teased a potential deal is in the works with a major pharmaceutical player, and said LifeMine will have more to say about that later this year.
LifeMine saw additional participation from existing investors GV (formerly Google Ventures), WuXi Healthcare Ventures, Foresite Capital, Arch Ventures, Blue Pool Capital and MRL Ventures Fund.