After Switzerland’s Roche paid $230 million in cash to buy San Diego’s Anadys Pharmaceuticals in 2011, Anadys CEO Steve Worland says he felt like an entrepreneur-in-residence, but without a venture capital firm to call home. So he began to roam the country in search of a new pharmaceutical adventure.
Worland says he wanted to focus on cancer, a field in which he hadn’t worked for more than a decade. So he began talking with prominent academic researchers about hot areas of research and development. Worland’s quest eventually led him to UC San Francisco and scientists Kevan Shokat and Davide Ruggero. Together they founded Effector Therapeutics to develop new small molecule drugs that target translation, a process in the cell for synthesizing proteins.
Effector moved to San Diego at the end of last year, and yesterday the company said it had raised $45 million in Series A financing, which should be enough to fund the startup’s lead candidate through proof-of-concept studies. Effector currently has eight employees, and Worland plans to double that as the company conducts multiple programs to assess tumor response data in patients.
Venture investors in Effector include U.S. Venture Partners, Abingworth, Novartis Venture Funds, SR One, Astellas Venture Management, Osage University Partners and Mission Bay Capital. The company also has named Carol Gallagher, the former CEO of Seattle’s Calistoga Pharmaceuticals (and a San Diego Xconomist), as chairwoman of Effector’s board of directors.
At a time when many cancer researchers were focused on developing drugs to inhibit the function of key oncogenes like BRAF or MEK, Worland says Shokat and Ruggero became interested in related malfunctions that help to drive tumor growth. While there was initially a very high response rate to drugs targeting key oncogene functions, Worland says cells often resume their progression into cancer. The idea was to identify the next set of drug targets.
Translation is an effector function, Worland said, that helps to drive healthy cells toward cancer. The company’s approach represents a paradigm shift by expanding beyond a focus solely on disease-triggering mechanisms to include key effector functions.
Shokat, who is chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at U.C. San Francisco, says in a statement from the company, “Translation has been known to be a fundamental step in gene expression for decades, but was only recently recognized as a critical process regulating the cellular levels of certain key proteins. By addressing an effector mechanism required by many oncogenes, including previously undruggable targets, selective translation regulators have the potential to treat multiple tumor types and may confer benefits beyond what has been observed clinically with inhibitors of single oncogenic targets.”
The company acquired an exclusive license from the University of California to technologies related to translational control, and Worland assembled a team that includes former Lilly research fellow Siegfried Reich as senior vice president of drug discovery, and former Anadys executive Kevin Eastwood to lead business development.