Startups, Venture

Startup with Johns Hopkins roots raising $40.5 million to develop cancer metabolism drugs

A new oncology company spun out of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is raising up to $40.5 million to develop its platform of anticancer therapies.

Barbara Slusher

The startup, founded just a year ago, is called Dracen Pharmaceuticals, and its tech is based on work by Barbara Slusher, a professor of neurology, and Jonathan Powell, a professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

The researchers altered the structure of an experimental drug that enhanced its ability to slip through the blood-brain barrier. Their research was published in August 2016 in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, which showed in animal studies that the altered drug structure resulted in ten times better drug delivery to the brains compared with the rest of animals’ bodies.

Jonathan Powell

The drug they tweaked is called 6-diazo-5-oxo-L-norleucine, or DON for short. It’s been used to shrink advanced tumors in clinical trials, but its damage to the gastrointestinal system prevented it from moving forward.

“We wondered whether we could make a safer and more tolerable form of DON by enhancing its brain penetration and limiting its exposure to the rest of the body and, thus, toxicity,” Slusher said in a 2016 statement.

Dracen has an exclusive agreement with Hopkins and the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in Prague to license the jointly-owned tech and develop proprietary drug candidates.

The company is developing novel glutamine antagonists that work as inhibitors of cancer metabolism, choking out tumors and their normal metabolic function. The platform might also have applications in autoimmune disorders, inflammatory disease and central nervous system conditions.

Dracen’s CEO Tom Estok said Dracen might be in the clinic by 2019.

The company is searching for lab and office space in Baltimore, and plans to hire about 12 employees and consultants,  Estok told the Baltimore Business Journal (which first reported the news).

Estok told BBJ he wasn’t ready to talk about the financing — and that makes sense, as Dracen has only reported $8.5 million raised so far of the hopeful $40.5 million, according to an SEC statement. It’s likely far from being wrapped up. Still, the regulatory form shows nine investors participated in the round so far. The investors are unidentified on the form. However, two partners from Deerfield are listed as directors of the company: Jonathan Leff and Robert Jackson.


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