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With $40M Banked, Escient Building for Fast Move to Human Trials

Xconomy San Diego — 

In the weeks since Escient Pharmaceuticals made its debut, the San Diego biotech has found lab space atop San Diego’s Torrey Pines Mesa and is recruiting scientists with experience developing drugs that target G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs).

Escient’s co-founders, CEO Alain Baron and chief scientific officer Marcus Boehm, have been busy, and it took a while to catch up with them after Escient disclosed on May 9 that it has raised $40 million in Series A funding. But then, the co-founders have ambitious plans. In a recent interview with Xconomy, Baron said the initial $40 million should be enough for Escient to screen compounds for targets within a small sub-group of GPCRs, identify a lead drug candidate, and begin human clinical trials within the next three years.

“What we’re talking about is getting to proof-of-concept in humans, which is pretty aggressive,” Baron said. “Getting an answer fast is really what we’re going to be trying to do.”

Baron was unwilling to say much about the specific targets or diseases that Escient is pursuing, except that the targets play a key role in neuro-immuno-inflammatory and autoreactive diseases with high unmet medical needs. “These are orphan GPCRs,” Baron said, “so what we know right now is our competitive advantage. These are novel and highly druggable targets.”

Boehm, who was previously the chief technology officer and a co-founder at Receptos, explained that GPCRs are embedded in the surface of the cellular membrane and are involved in external signal transduction. They comprise the largest and most diverse group of surface receptors in mammals, and help regulate a wide variety of physiological responses. Many important categories of routinely used drugs target GPCRs, including blood thinners and drugs for hypertension, asthma, allergies, acid reflux, bipolar disorder, and depression.

Baron, who was the founding CEO of Elcelyx Therapeutics (and continues to play a role there), said Escient is focusing on a sub-group of these receptors, known as Mas-Related G-Protein Receptors (Mrgprs), identified in the lab of Xinzhong Dong, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and neuroscientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dong also is an Escient co-founder, and sits on the company’s scientific advisory board.

Escient has licensed technology that covers a new family of eight Mrgprs found in humans, Baron said. “They are expressed in very specific tissue, and the pattern of expression is unique in each of the eight,” Baron said. “If you knew their function, and what these receptors mediate, you would have a sense of what these drugs could target.”

Escient will be screening compounds against some of these receptors, Baron said.

In a statement last month, Robert Tjian, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at UC Berkeley, said the significance of the orphan GPCRs that Escient is targeting was quickly apparent at The Column Group, a San Francisco venture firm where he is a discovery partner. The Column Group led the syndication of Escient’s $40 million round with 5AM Ventures and Osage University Partners, Baron said.

With the new venture money in hand, Baron said Escient now has five employees, and plans to add 10 or more by the end of the year. The company also has been looking to sign contract research organizations to carry out much of the work, he said.