Verastem, Founded by MIT Big Names, Raises $16M to Fight Cancer Stem Cells

11/16/10Follow @xconomy

Robert Weinberg and Eric Lander, two of the most famous biologists at MIT, are putting their heads together at a new biotech company that seeks to fight cancer by attacking cancer stem cells.

The startup, Verastem, has raised $16 million in its Series A venture financing, the company announced today. Longwood Founders Fund—the group led by prominent entrepreneurs Christoph Westphal, Michelle Dipp, and Rich Aldrich—made the founding investment, and the full Series A deal includes Bessemer Venture Partners, Cardinal Partners, and MPM Capital.

Verastem is going after one of the emerging ideas in cancer biology, that there are cancer stem cells which find a way to differentiate into tumors and cause recurrences even after most normal cancer cells are wiped out by chemotherapies. Verastem’s founders have developed a proprietary method that it says has the potential to identify compounds that can selectively hone in on these nefarious cancer stem cells and kill them. The research that formed the basis of the company was published in the journal Cell in 2008 and 2009, Verastem says.

“I believe cancer stem cell-targeted therapies represent a transformative way to treat patients with cancer,” Weinberg, a founding member of the Whitehead Institute, and a professor of biology at MIT, said in a statement.

Satish Jindal, the co-founder and CEO of NeoGenesis Pharmaceuticals and former head of the Schering-Plough site in Cambridge, MA, has joined as the president and chief operating officer at Verastem. Piyush Gupta, a new faculty member at the Whitehead Institute and former student of Weinberg’s, is also a scientific co-founder.

Of course, Verastem isn’t the only group that sees promise in fighting cancer stem cells. Redwood, City, CA-based OncoMed Pharmaceuticals secured an upfront $40 million payment last June through a partnership with Bayer to pursue antibodies, protein drugs, and small molecules aimed at these types of cells.

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