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Led By Biotech Stars, ORIC Nabs $53M To Fight Drug-Resistant Cancer

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Rich Heyman twice made hay developing drugs to treat cancers that depend on hormones to thrive. Now he’s trying it again with a new company markedly different than the previous two.

Heyman (pictured) is interim CEO of ORIC Pharmaceuticals, a South San Francisco, CA-based startup that has drawn several biotech boldface names, as well as a $53 million Series B round of funding. ORIC’s aim is to develop drugs for patients whose cancer has grown resistant to previous treatments. Its lead product, not yet in human testing, is aimed at prostate cancer that is no longer treatable with the drug enzalutamide (Xtandi), which is sold by Medivation (NASDAQ: MDVN) of San Francisco and Astellas Pharma of Japan.

There’s a lot of complicated history behind that choice. Enzalutamide is one of the drugs that ORIC founder Charles Sawyers helped discover while he was at the University of California, Los Angeles. Sawyers, now at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, is one of the nation’s top cancer researchers, specializing in tumor growth and resistance. (He’s also spearheading an effort to have seven major cancer centers pool their patient data, which Xconomy wrote about in early November.)

Spun out of UCLA in 2005, enzalutamide went to Medivation, while in 2009 another set of compounds to treat prostate cancer ended up with Heyman at tiny Aragon Pharmaceuticals in San Diego. Medivation sued Aragon and UCLA, claiming it should have rights to Aragon’s drug, ARN-509, because of its similarity to enzalutamide. A court ruled against Medivation in 2013, clearing the way for Johnson & Johnson to buy Aragon for up to $1 billion six months later.

J&J bought Aragon for ARN-509 but agreed to leave with Heyman a research program on hormone-driven breast cancer. He quickly turned that into Seragon Pharmaceuticals, which he sold to Roche’s Genentech division for as much as $1.7 billion in 2014, a rare case of cashing out twice from one set of biotech assets.

For ORIC, Heyman says there is nothing related to Aragon, Medivation, UCLA, or the legal squabble. But Charles Sawyers is back in the picture. For ORIC’s lead product, Heyman and his backers have licensed work from Sawyers’s lab at MSK that shows where enzalutamide-resistant tumors are vulnerable. Sawyers’s lab has provided the target: a protein on the tumor surface called the glucocorticoid (GC) receptor.

Enzalutimide works by blocking the hormone androgen. Without it, many prostate tumors can’t grow. But deprived of androgen, they often outwit the treatment by switching their growth signal to the GC receptor. (Imagine someone taping your mouth shut to prevent you from eating, but you adapt by taking in nutrients through your nose.)

ORIC is using other tools—such as sophisticated RNA analysis, from its co-founder Scott Lowe, also of MSK—to build out a technology platform that can look for new ways to other treat drug-resistant cancers. “We’re in this for the long haul,” says Heyman, noting the contrast to Aragon and Seragon, which were built to arrive quickly at clinical data that pharma buyers would find compelling.

The Series B cash should take ORIC—which stands for “overcoming resistance in cancer”—into clinical trials for its GC receptor drug and last two or three years, says Heyman, who as interim CEO is in “no rush to leave.”

Investors pitching into the round included The Column Group, Topspin Partners, OrbiMed Advisors, EcoR1 Capital, Foresite Capital and Kravis Investment Partners.

San Francisco VC firm The Column Group rode Aragon and Seragon to big returns, and it led ORIC’s $15 million Series A round last year.  Two Column Group partners, Peter Svennilson and Larry Lasky, are on ORIC’s board of directors, joining Heyman and 23andMe chief scientific officer Richard Scheller, who was the top scientist at Genentech at the time of the Seragon deal.