Syros, a Whitehead and Dana-Farber Spinoff, Snags $30M For Cancer

4/11/13Follow @xconomy

Not many biotech startups are able to scrape together a $30 million venture round right out of the gate. But it’s happening today to a little company in Watertown, MA, with some edgy science from researchers at the Whitehead Institute and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The startup, Syros Pharmaceuticals, is announcing today it has raised that large sum of $30 million in a Series A financing led by Arch Venture Partners and Flagship Ventures, and which included WuXi PharmaTech Corporate Venture Fund and undisclosed private investors.

This nine-employee company, which started operating in December, is emerging from stealth mode with a bang. It has not just big-name investors, but some big-name founders and executives, and a couple of publications describing its work in the journal Cell. The company is based on research by co-founders Richard Young of the Whitehead Institute and MIT; James “Jay” Bradner of Harvard Medical School, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and the Broad Institute; and Nathanael Gray of Harvard Medical School and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Nancy Simonian, the well-known former chief medical officer of Cambridge, MA-based Millennium Pharmaceuticals, has signed on as CEO, and Nobel laureate Phil Sharp of MIT has agreed to join the founders and investors on the Syros board.

Nancy Simonian, CEO of Syros Pharmaceuticals

The big idea here is that Syros believes it has found a novel way to attack disease by building on new insights into proteins that regulate how genes are expressed in the body. The researchers have identified what they call “super enhancers” —mainly transcription factors, kinases, and other enzymes—which are responsible for determining how an embryonic stem cell controls the genetic regions that tell it to become a skin cell, a muscle cell, a tumor cell, or something else. While many scientists use next-generation sequencing tools to look broadly at gene expression patterns or for variations like mutations that lead to disease, Syros believes it could have an unorthodox approach to drug development by focusing on these largely overlooked “super-enhancers” as drug targets.

There has been a push in biology for several years to look not just at genes, but at how genes are regulated, especially since the landmark publication of the public ENCODE consortium, which is redefining the way scientists think about regulation of gene expression. Syros believes it can go a step beyond those basic research findings, and that it has identified areas that are amenable to drug discovery, Simonian says. Syros’s “super enhancer” are few in number (only a couple hundred), they are different in that they are larger than other gene “enhancers,” and they (or their components) can be altered by conventional small-molecule drugs.

Some of these “super enhancers” are associated with genes that have been previously shown to drive disease, but some appear to be linked to many different downstream diseases, like forms of cancer, and they could end up being entirely new molecular targets that no one has gone after in the pharmaceutical industry, Simonian says. The company will focus on how these “super enhancers” give rise to disease states, she says, seeking to understand which ones the tumor cell depends on most to survive.

“It’s been really exciting,” Simonian says. “Over the last few years, people have been saying that all these really interesting things are coming out in biology, but ‘will people invest in them?’ A company like this is an example of people seeing the real promise, and putting some muscle behind it. It’s good for all of us in the sector.”

Robert Nelsen, the managing director at Arch Venture Partners, said earlier this week at an Xconomy event in Seattle that Syros is the kind of company that “tells us everything we thought we knew about transcription factors was wrong.” Nelsen got involved as a board member, and Arch is making a bet on it, because it represents a potentially important platform for new drug discovery, not an incremental innovation. Pharma acquirers appear to be … Next Page »

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