Using AI to sequence fungi genomes for cancer treatments, Hexagon Bio nets $47M in Series A
A Stanford spinout exploring how fungi can be sequenced to discover new medicines in oncology and infectious diseases now has significantly more cash to do so.
Early Tuesday morning, Hexagon Bio announced the closing of their Series A financing, pulling in $47 million from a group of investors led by The Column Group. The round, which also saw participation from 8VC and Two Sigma Ventures, will go toward creating a proprietary genomics database as well as building out a drug discovery team to develop the new compounds. Hexagon brought on Tod Smeal as its new CSO after he served in the same position at Lilly Research Labs.
“This is going to take us into this next phase from company building,” CEO Maureen Hillenmeyer told Endpoints News. “We’ve built this great platform, but now we’re at a stage where we’re really focused on taking molecules towards the clinic.”
The tech that Hexagon has developed aims to optimize the search for natural products within fungi that can serve as foundations for cancer treatments, Hillenmeyer said. Historically, such searches have been “brute force” methods requiring painstaking efforts to sequence.
But Hexagon wants to pair data mining with drug discovery in order to find such natural products, also known as secondary metabolites. Fungi produce secondary metabolites as self-defense mechanisms, protecting themselves from disease. Hillenmeyer’s goal is to apply an AI algorithm to sequence and sift through massive amounts of genome data to try to determine what other fungi naturally cultivate metabolites useful in eventual cancer therapies.
Smeal compared the task to checking out amateur baseball players to draft for a championship team. The players, or the metabolites, are all out there waiting to be discovered, while the scouts and front offices — Hexagon’s platform and drug discovery team, in this instance — try to determine which have the most potential.
“What’s exciting about it is that, in the past, there’s already been a lot of success in developing drugs based on natural products but it was really a non-systematic approach,” Smeal said. “Maureen’s team is in the process of going through and sampling a huge diversity of the possible agents that are out there. So it’s sort of a new frontier, but it’s being done in a systematic and efficient way.”
Metabolites from fungi have been produced before, most notably penicillin in addition to cholesterol-reducing statins. But while a revolutionary antibiotic, penicillin was discovered by accident in the 1920s, and it took years for researchers to fully sequence the genomes used in statin-based medicines.
That’s where Hexagon hopes the data mining will provide a huge boon, by cutting down the bulk search process itself and getting programs into the clinic at a faster clip.
“There’s about 5 million fungal genomes on the earth, of which only about 5,000 have been sequenced,” Hillenmeyer said. “Each of those genomes contains a huge amount of data that we have to sift through to find what we call the needle in the haystack: drugs that are useful for people.”
As of now, Hexagon says it’s too early to determine what any treatment might end up looking like. Whether the company develops an IV-based drug or a once-a-day pill, those decisions are still up in the air and will depend on what targets the company ultimately goes after.
But one thing’s for certain: Hexagon, believing in its tech, is not going to be picky.
“We’re focused on oncology, but initially we’re going to be working in anti-infectives and oncology,” Smeal said. “We’re going to be very opportunistic, so depending on what comes out of the platform, if there’s opportunities in other therapeutic areas, we will probably explore them as well.”