Scoop: Samantha Truex departs Atlas to head $200M OrbiMed-backed immunology startup
After longtime biotech executive Sam Truex announced last year she was shutting down her short-lived immunology startup Quench Bio, she said she planned to stay at Atlas Venture to help build a new startup with many of her erstwhile Quench employees.
A little less than a year later, though, Truex appears to have departed to lead a well-backed startup from a rival firm, OrbiMed.
Two weeks ago, Truex posted a job listing on LinkedIn for head of translational research at Upstream Bio. Upstream, the post said, had already raised a $200 million round led by OrbiMed to develop drugs for inflammatory diseases.
A Nov. 30 filing in Massachusetts lists Truex as Upstream’s CEO. She declined to comment via email, saying the company was still in stealth.
“As you have seen we are just recruiting at this time,” she said in an email. “We are not ready to come out of stealth at this time, so are not providing any additional details.”
She added she maintains a “strong, positive relationship with Atlas,” including serving on the board of HotSpot Therapeutics, where Atlas partner Bruce Booth is chair.
According to the listing, Upstream has already licensed in one molecule with early human data and is trying to license one more. Although it’s unclear which company Upstream struck a deal with, the biotech’s board of directors includes Atsushi Sugita, president of Maruho, a Japanese pharma with numerous dermatology candidates in clinical testing.
Other board members include Ron Renaud, former CEO of Translate Bio, and Srinivas Akkaraju, head of Samsara BioCapital. Adam Houghton, a former AbbVie and Eli Lilly executive, is CBO.
Upstream would be Truex’s third stint at the top of an immunology-focused biotech since her work on multiple sclerosis at Biogen. She was founding CBO at Padlock Therapeutics before Bristol Myers Squibb bought the company and its rheumatoid arthritis molecules for $600 million in 2016. And Quench, her previous venture, sought to drug a newly discovered pathway in inflammation.
At the same time, the Atlas-backed company Truex began building after shutting down Quench appears to be nearing the end of its stealth days as well.
Corporate filings show Atlas registered a company named EoCys Therapeutics weeks after Truex and Booth announced that Quench simply couldn’t build molecules that effectively inhibited the new pathway.
Later records list Truex as EoCys’ CEO, but a December filing shows Andre Turenne, who helmed the troubled gene therapy biotech Voyager Therapeutics until its pivot last spring, was named CEO.
According to job listings on Atlas’s website, EoCys is using advances in “ultradeep chemoproteomics”— new tools to analyze how small molecules interact with proteins — and machine learning to develop covalent medicines for cancer and immunological disorders.
Covalent medicines are molecules that form an irreversible bond with their target. Historically, developers tried to avoid these molecules for fear that they’d bring untoward side effects. But since the success of a handful of covalent drugs a decade ago, including AbbVie’s blockbuster cancer drug ibrutinib, researchers have started to recognize these compounds can bring distinct advantages.
Some researchers now argue the most potent tool for predicting a molecule’s effectiveness is actually how long it sticks to its target, as opposed to standard measures like pharmacokinetics. In August, Bayer spent $1.5 billion to buy out Vividion Therapeutics and its covalent medicines platform, despite the fact the company had yet to put a drug in the clinic.
“It’s had its ups and downs over the years, but in recent years it’s pretty much been on the upswing,” said Derek Lowe, a longtime industry medicinal chemist.
Lowe said EoCys likely derives its name from cystine — the amino acid that most covalent medicines bind to. But he cautioned that the body is full of cystine, making it difficult to design a molecule without unwanted side effects.
EoCys, he said, is likely trying to design drugs that can nuzzle into the binding pocket of a protein, where it then has a little covalent war hammer at the end to latch onto a cytosine inside. They’re likely using machine learning to screen for other human proteins a candidate might hit, to see whether it will cause severe side effects.
“There’s a possibility that people maybe are a little too enthusiastic about it,” Lowe said. “It’s not a walk in the park.”
Booth, listed in early filings as EoCys’ president, did not respond to a request for comment.
The filings suggest EoCys relies at least in part on research from Edwaard Chouchani’s lab at Harvard Medical School, where he studies cell metabolism and has written on new approaches to covalent medicines.