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With Latest Startup, Harvard’s Verdine Again Aims at Elusive Targets

Xconomy Boston — 

Harvard University chemical biologist and serial entrepreneur Greg Verdine has spent more than a decade trying to come up with different solutions for one critical problem in biotech: The majority of would-be drug targets are out of reach of existing technologies.

That drive has already led to several different companies—among them Aileron Therapeutics, Warp Drive Bio, and WaVe Life Sciences—each with different methods of getting to tough-to-drug targets. And now it looks as if another, a stealthy startup called Fog Pharmaceuticals, can be added to the list.

Fog Pharma hasn’t made any formal announcements as of yet, but Verdine (pictured above) gave some insight into the startup’s plans at Xconomy’s “What’s Hot in Boston Biotech” event last week. The company, he said, is developing a new class of molecules called “cell penetrating mini proteins,” which combine attributes of small molecules and biologics. Small molecules are synthetic chemicals that are slight enough to slip into cells and to reach targets inside of them, but they are not able to bind to all of those targets. Biologics, particularly monoclonal antibodies, are larger molecules that are popular because they can be designed to bind to almost any target—as long as that target is on the surface of a cell.

Those limitations are significant. They’re the reason that the entire universe of small molecules and biologics can currently only get to a fraction—some 20 percent or so, Verdine said—of known targets, and thus, fall short of treating many diseases. But a group of companies have come along over the last decade or so aiming to marry the targeting power of antibodies with small molecules’ ability to penetrate cell. These include companies like Aileron (which Verdine helped found in 2005, but is no longer associated with), Ensemble Therapeutics, and Bicycle Therapeutics.

Still, it can take decades for new drugmaking methods to take hold. RNAi, for example, was discovered in 1998, and could be on the verge of its first approved drug in a few years. Verdine was optimistic at last week’s event that other methods would continue to advance. “In the next 10 years there will be a revolutionary rewriting of the rules of what we will consider to be a drug-like structure,” he said.

He’s hoping that cell-penetrating mini proteins will be part of that change. Through his lab at Harvard, and now Fog Pharma, Verdine has been at this for a few years—he got a research grant in 2013 to use the molecules to target “Ras,” a family of proteins implicated in cancer. At the Xconomy event, Verdine said they get into cells via an “active transport” mechanism that cells use to take up certain molecules, though he wasn’t more specific.

“I won’t claim this is a panacea, but I think it’s going to be one solution to a subset of targets that are now considered undruggable,” he said.

It’s unclear how far along this technology is, or what Verdine’s plans are for Fog Pharma. He didn’t respond to e-mail requests to comment for this story. But a few other details are publicly available. First, the Gloucester, MA-based company appears to have raised $625,000 from four investors in November, according to a regulatory filing. Additionally, according to LinkedIn, the startup has at least one other employee, Weiqing Zhou, who heads the company’s strategic development efforts. On a recent podcast hosted by CTI Life Sciences Fund managing partner Janelle Anderson—in which Verdine mentioned he has a new gig as a venture partner at WuXi Ventures—Verdine said that Fog Pharma’s most advanced projects are cell-penetrating mini-proteins “that drug important targets in oncology, and there are plenty of those.”

Verdine is also slated to give a keynote address at a conference in San Diego next week to discuss the progress of the approach.

Verdine said at the Xconomy event that he has “spent the last 15 years or so living in between three worlds”—academic research, venture capital, and entrepreneurship. In addition to his current posts at Harvard, WuXi Ventures, Fog, and Warp Drive, he’s been a venture partner Third Rock Ventures and co-founded several Boston-area biotechs including Enanta Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ENTA), Tokai Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: TKAI), Gloucester Pharmaceuticals (acquired by Celgene), Eleven Biotherapeutics (NASDAQ: EBIO), and WaVe (NASDAQ: WVE). He also co-founded the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute in 2014. Check out these stories for more on Verdine and the startups he’s created.