Parasol Therapeutics, a stealthy biotech startup co-founded by MIT bioengineering professor Ram Sasisekharan, has raised $3.25 million in a seed round of venture capital to develop new treatments and diagnostics initially for influenza, says Alan Crane, a general partner at Polaris Venture Partners and chairman of Parasol. On top of taking on the global flu epidemic, the young firm is moving into labs just down Rogers Street from Xconomy’s main office in Cambridge, MA. So call this a newsy neighborhood update.
Before its recent move to Kendall Square, Parasol had been in an incubation phase at Polaris’s offices in Waltham, MA. Kevin Bitterman, a principal at Polaris, is heading day-to-day operations at the startup as interim CEO, Crane says. In addition to Polaris, the syndicate of investors in Parasol’s $3.25 million seed round (at least most of which raised last year) includes Flagship Ventures of Cambridge and Lux Capital in New York.
Parasol is developing products based on breakthroughs in Sasisekharan’s lab at MIT. The discoveries involve how influenza viruses bind to sugar chains known as glycans on the surfaces of cells in order to infect them, Crane explains. Glycans help regulate what enters cells, and the molecular structure of these sugar chains can determine whether or not a flu virus can infect a cell. The biotech firm plans to exploit this new body of knowledge to pursue novel diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines for influenza—including a “universal therapeutic” that could be used to treat any strain of the flu. A major problem with flu viruses is their ability to mutate and develop resistance to existing treatments, and Parasol aims to beat this resistance problem through its understanding of how the viruses attach to cells to infect living tissues.
“We need therapeutics that won’t develop resistance,” Crane says. “We also need therapeutics that can intervene relatively late in the infection process and still have a good effect, because one of the issues with a lot of these drugs is if you’ve had the virus for a couple of days they have only a modest effect.”
Indeed, there have been increases in the resistance of certain flu strains to certain drugs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During last flu season, for example, the CDC found that 11 percent of cases of the most common seasonal flu infections tested in the U.S. were resistant to oseltamivir, an anti-viral drug marketed by Swiss drug giant Roche as Tamiflu. In January, the agency reported that nearly all such flu strains, known as H1N1 influenza, that it had tested this flu season were resistant to Tamiflu—although each of those resistant strains was treatable with other FDA-approved drugs.
Large drug companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, and Novartis are major players in the multibillion-dollar global market for flu treatments. And Parasol investor Robert Paull, a managing partner at Lux, says that these industry giants need to feed their development pipelines with new vaccines. “Some of these companies like Parasol are playing right into that,” Paull says. “In Parasol’s case, one of the most compelling aspects of the technology out of MIT is their understanding of rapidly mutating pathogens, with the first focus being on flu.”
Parasol is the latest of three biotech startups Sasisekharan has formed with Crane and others at Polaris, and each of the firms has benefited from the MIT professor’s discoveries related to complex sugar molecules, Crane says. The first firm in the Sasisekharan-Polaris franchise, Momenta Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:MNTA), is applying technology from the professor’s lab to develop novel biotech drugs and copies of existing biologics like blood-thinner Lovenox (enoxaparin sodium injection). Crane was CEO of Cambridge-based Momenta from 2002 to 2006. He was also founding chief executive of the second firm, Cerulean Pharma (formerly Tempo Pharmaceuticals), also based in Cambridge. Cerulean is developing nano-sized drugs to treat cancer and other diseases, and Crane says that Sasisekharan’s involvement in the firm stems in part from his interest in the role of complex sugar molecules in cutting off the blood supply to tumors.
“I think that people like Ram are people who, instead of saying, ‘I have a hammer let me figure out what nail I can nail in,’ they say, ‘What are the problems out there that can be solved?'” Crane says, “and then they go about figuring out the best ways to solve those problems.”