Using MIT-Harvard Technology, Ligon Discovery Speeds Up Search for New Drugs

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make any number of drug-screening assays. Angela Koehler, a chemist at the Broad Institute and co-founder of Ligon, discovered several years ago that an isocyanate chemistry could be used to bind a majority of small molecules to glass slides used to find drug candidates, without requiring time-consuming chemical modifications that are typically required to develop such tests.

The startup can use the chemistry to attach thousands of small molecules onto slides, which are used to identify molecules that bind to disease proteins in a high-speed screening process. The chemistry enables Ligon to link more than 75 percent of the small molecules in a typical compound collection to the glass slides, providing them the ability to screen hundreds of thousands of molecules against dozens of protein targets at the same time, according to Ligon. Koehler (who made the company’s key discovery with colleagues in the standout chemist Stuart Schreiber’s lab at Harvard) has in recent years published numerous research papers that demonstrate its use in identifying drug candidates against transcription factors and other proteins that have historically proved very challenging for drug discovery.

Ligon has a two-pronged business strategy to exploit Koehler’s discovery, according to Kleyn. First, the company is seeking partnerships with drug companies that would pay to use the startup’s technology as well as provide future payments based on the success of drugs it discovers with the technology. Thus far, the startup has formed such a partnership with the Cambridge, MA-based biotech Lycera, which plans to use Ligon’s technology to discover small molecule drugs for immune disorders. (Last week Lycera, which is covered by Xconomy’s new Detroit site because it has a key R&D site in Plymouth, MI, raised $11 million from investors.) The second prong of Ligon’s strategy is to use its technology to discover its own drugs against difficult-to-drug targets like protein-protein interactions. Ligon has completed initial screens against over 50 such targets and is now moving ahead with its first drug candidates in cancer, inflammation, and metabolic disease.

Kleyn says that his firm is in talks with multiple potential partners, the names of which he was unable to disclose because of confidentiality concerns. However, it came to light during the Boston Biotech Business Development Conference in April that Ligon had met with executives at the London-based drug giant GlaxoSmithKline’s Center of Excellence for External Drug Discovery (CEEDD), which does option-based deals with biotechs to enhance Glaxo’s pipeline of potential drugs. Michelle Dipp, the head of the CEEDD, mentioned her outfit’s interaction with Ligon during the conference but did not disclose the nature of talks between her group and the startup.

Nevertheless, the buzz about Ligon bodes well for its future. Kleyn says that his firm, which raised $1 million in seed money from the investment firm IncTank Ventures last year, wants to raise between $3 million and $5 million in a Series A round of venture capital. The money would help fund its internal drug-discovery efforts and support its search for new partners. The Ligon crew knows how to raise cash for biotech startups. Kleyn was chief scientific officer for Gemini Genomics (now part of San Diego-based Sequenom), where he took part in the firm’s $96 million initial public offering. Ligon has also recruited Errol De Souza, the former CEO of Cambridge-based Archemix, as its chairman.

Now that Ligon’s been discovered, the startup faces the even bigger challenge of finding a drug that can go the distance in human clinical trials. We’ll see how they handle this hurdle in the coming years.

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