The people at Rubius Therapeutics think they’re on to a game-changing new platform for drug R&D, one that can spawn a wave of transformational new medicines. And they now have one of the biggest venture capital rounds in drug R&D this year to put their dreams to the test in a lineup of new programs now headed for the clinic.
Seeded by Flagship Pioneering and initially backed with a $25 million A round in late 2015, Rubius today is uncorking a $120 million investment “to move a wave of products into the clinic next year,” says Rubius President Torben Straight Nissen. After doubling the staff to 40 over the last 9 months, Rubius will now shoot for 100 over the next year.
Taking a page from Moderna — a Flagship startup that attracted hundreds of millions of dollars early on to finance another shot at a closely-watched breakthrough effort — Rubius isn’t looking to prove what they can do with just one or two programs. The team wants to lay out a full pipeline, preferably with a couple of major league partners coming in early to help leverage the kind of financial firepower needed to execute on what they believe is a game-changer in biotech.
“We’re moving forward on different indications and different features that test the technology,” Straight Nissen tells me. The most advanced are enzyme replacements therapies and new treatments for solid tumors and hematological malignancies.
“We’ve projected that we’ll be in the clinic in 2018,” he says, adding that that is as specific as he wants to get on that topic right now.
The red-cell therapy tech they have is designed to isolate hematopoietic stem cells from O negative donors and use them as the building blocks for new therapies, genetically engineering them into red blood drugs that can express a multitude of proteins on the cells while they still have a nucleus, modulating them for protein expression and then shedding the nucleus as they switch on the therapeutic qualities of the cell.
Essentially, it’s a scientific hijacking, taking cells and turning them into a new fleet of therapies.
The key challenge right now, says Straight Nissen, is picking the first wave for the pipeline from a large number of potential targets. But this kind of allogeneic approach suggests a variety of avenues, including finding a new way to develop an off-the-shelf mechanism to recruit a T cell attack on cancer cells, hitting the tumor microenvironment — ground zero in the cancer field — in a way that avoids uncontrolled expansion of T cells with potentially catastrophic reactions.
Rubius in many ways represents the kind of biotech gamble that Flagship wants to become known for. It draws on some inspiration from a marquee scientist — in this case MIT’s Harvey Lodish — while building on the technology in their Flagship VentureLabs and employing a big team led by industry professionals to prove it works. In this case leaders include Straight Nissen, who joined Rubius from Pfizer, as well as Novartis veteran David Epstein, a new executive partner at Flagship who is taking on the chairman’s role.
Flagship is providing the cash, along with some silent institutional partners. And you can bet they’re talking to some major players to see who would like to collaborate on the cause.
The biotech is “following in the footsteps of Flagship’s family of successful multiproduct platform companies,” says Flagship CEO and Rubius co-founder Noubar Afeyan. And they have the cash now to find out just how far that path might lead.
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