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Constellation Reboots With Eye On Immuno-Oncology, Hires New CEO

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated 5/25/17, 12:44 p.m. See below.] Constellation Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge, MA-based biotech that up until 2015 had a sprawling alliance with Genentech, has made sweeping changes this morning. The firm has replaced its president and CEO, will transition its chief scientific officer out of his position in July, and is now embarking on a new scientific strategy.

Constellation has hired Jigar Raythatha, the former chief business officer of another Boston area cancer drug developer, Jounce Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JNCE)—and a former Constellation employee—as its new president and CEO. Raythatha, who joined Jounce in December 2012, was previously Constellation’s head of corporate development.

James Audia, the company’s chief scientific officer since 2011, will transition from his post in July. Audia will remain on the board of directors and be a scientific advisor to the company.

The executive overhaul comes amidst a change in direction for Constellation. The company was formed nine years ago based on work into epigenetics, or the concept of switching genes on or off without changing the underlying DNA. It’s developed two drug candidates based on that research, CPI-1205 and CPI-0610, and both are in Phase 1 testing for certain blood cancers.

Constellation is still developing epigenetic drugs, but it now also aims to get in on the cancer immunotherapy frenzy. Pharma companies and biotechs are clamoring to combine immunotherapy agents—which spur on the immune system to fight cancer—with other drugs, hoping to improve on the already promising results immunotherapies have produced so far. Constellation aims to develop drugs that can be used in combination with other immunotherapy drugs, and has added two immuno-oncology experts—Padmanee Sharma of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Robert Schreiber of Washington University—to its scientific advisory board to help with the shift.

“It’s about following the science,” Raythatha wrote in an e-mail about the shift. Constellation believes it can develop drugs that may help overcome resistance to other immuno-oncology therapies and help open up those treatments to more patients, according to Raythatha. [Updated with comments from CEO throughout.]

Raythatha is Constellation’s first full-time CEO since Keith Dionne left last year. Dionne was named Constellation’s CEO in 2012 by Third Rock Ventures, the VC firm that formed Constellation in 2008. Dionne, who was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Third Rock before joining Constellation, was appointed shortly after the company signed a broad deal with Genentech in January 2012 to work together to develop epigenetic drugs for cancer. Dionne’s LinkedIn once again lists him as entrepreneur-in-residence at Third Rock, starting in January 2017. Raythatha was hired to “lead the company during this next phase of growth as a clinical-stage company,” he wrote.

The Genentech deal gave the firm a three-year option to buy Constellation, but Genentech passed in August 2015, telling Xconomy at the time that Constellation wasn’t a “strategic fit” for its portfolio. Constellation instead planned to raise cash and gear up for an IPO. It followed with a $55.8 million mezzanine round four months later, and then another $24.3 million in funding in September 2016, according to regulatory filings. The company is still privately held and, according to Raythatha, has enough cash to get through some important milestones. Still, “a capital-market raise could be appropriate at the right terms,” he said.