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phage that express random peptides on their surface. After small biopsies are taken, the researchers can find out exactly which peptides ended up in the biopsied tissues, providing unique and organ-specific data, Leuchtenberger said. “Because they have the ability that previously nobody has ever had to do organ-specific screening in man, they are coming up with organ-specific receptors, and that’s one of the huge advances here,” he said.
Leuchtenberger first learned about the MD Anderson technology from Lobb last summer. Leuchtenberger, who has been CEO of New Haven, CT-based Rib-X Pharmaceuticals since March, said he first met Lobb about 20 years ago when he joined Biogen (now Weston, MA-based biotech juggernaut Biogen Idec (NASADAQ:BIIB)) as a business guy, when Lobb was already an established scientist. The pair later co-founded a virtual company called Albor Biologics in 2003 to commercialize Spanish researchers’ discovery of cell-adhesion molecules. Like Albor, Leuchtenberger said, Mercator has come together because of Lobb’s strong ties to his fellow scientists, in this case the team at MD Anderson. With the lead researchers at MD Anderson, Lobb and Leuchtenberger formed Mercator in November 2009.
Guiffre became the young startup’s CEO in April, joining the firm before it had licensed its technology or landed initial seed financing. He’s a former general counsel for Lexington, MA-based Cubist Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:CBST) who had been working as a biotech consultant prior to stepping into his role at Mercator. While a consultant, his contacts at the venture firm Abingworth Management put him in touch with its portfolio company Hydra Biosciences in Cambridge, MA, for which Guiffre helped engineer a licensing deal with his former employer, Cubist, that closed in October 2009. Later, the folks at Abingworth put Guiffre in touch with Lobb and Leuchtenberger at Mercator.
For Mercator’s seed round, Guiffre said that the startup received investments exclusively from individuals from the Boston area and near MD Anderson in Texas. While he wouldn’t name names, he said that the investors include his and Lobb’s former bosses at biotech companies and two oncologists. The firm plans to tap its first investment dollars from institutional backers in a hoped-for Series A funding round next year. Until then, the CEO says that he and Lobb plan to operate as the firm’s only employees. Mercator’s research will be conducted in the labs of the firm’s co-founders at MD Anderson.
“We think this is very exciting,” Lobb said. “Nobody has ever done this in a systematic way, and using the peptides, it should allow us to direct various warheads to the tumor and selectively destroy the cancer.”