Haseltine’s DNA Repair Company Steps Out

As I wrote in Wednesday’s post on Aveo’s deal with Eli Lilly, the biomarker business is finally having a growth spurt, at least in oncology. Another intriguing company trying to cash in on this trend is The DNA Repair Company (or DNAR), a Boston-based startup co-founded by Human Genome Sciences’ founder and former CEO Bill Haseltine.

DNAR was founded a year and a half ago, and is just now coming out of stealth mode. Based on science from co-founders Alan D’Andrea of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Michael Yaffe of MIT, DNAR is developing tests to determine which patients respond to particular cancer drugs. Both scientists are Harvard Medical School professors and specialists on DNA repair mechanisms—the tools that cells have evolved to undo potentially devastating damage to their genetic material from sources such as radiation or toxins. (Such mechanisms go haywire in tumors.) Yaffe, who is both a molecular biologist and a trauma and critical care surgeon in the intensive care unit, previously co-founded Medford, MA-based Consensus Pharmaceuticals and Cambridge, MA-based Merrimack Pharmaceuticals.

Haseltine got involved because “Alan [D’Andrea] was one of my protégés and the technology is interesting,” he says. “One of the most exciting developments in cancer therapy now is the ability to find the right drug, for the right patient, at the right time.” Haseltine was a professor at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber before founding Human Genome Sciences; he left the high-profile Rockville, MD-based biotech in 2004.

DNAR President and CEO Daniel W. Paterson says the company’s tests will be run in its own lab, and will be useful for both regular patient care and to guide drug development. The format is convenient. Paraffin-embedded formalin-fixed tumor samples—just like those produced in most biopsies—are tested using antibodies that detect specific markers of DNA repair pathways. DNAR’s scientists are currently seeing how the company’s markers predict patients’ response to the main drugs used to treat common solid tumors as well as to a handful of new emerging drugs.

Paterson says the company is already in talks with several pharmaceutical companies who want to use the technology. DNAR also has IP around some novel targets for drug development, but that is for a “later stage” he says. DNAR received an undisclosed amount of initial funding from Mohr Davidow Ventures in Menlo Park, CA. “We’ll probably go for the next round within the next six months,” Paterson says. During that time, the company will also move to larger headquarters while staying close to MIT and Dana-Farber, he says. About 20 hires are planned over the 12 to 18 months.

DNAR is hoping to join just a handful of companies that have so far launched tests to guide the use of cancer drugs; most of those companies are out West. According to Haseltine, over the last year or so, DNAR has “made outstanding progress.” And he believes the market is primed for such tests—both as clinical tools and as drug-development tools. Because of criticism about drugs that work in too few patients, and a growing need for better drugs, “The pharmaceutical industry is eagerly seeking biomarkers to prove specificity and improve outcomes,” he says.

DNAR has the distinction of being both one of the first companies Haseltine started up after leaving HGS, and its the only one to be located on the East coast. And most of his other startups involve energy, not biomedicine. “I’m very interested in using biology to develop alternative energy sources,” he says.

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