Stealthy Mercator, Founded by Biogen Idec Veterans, Raises $2M to Attack Cancer

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated, 8/12/10, 10:15 am Eastern time. See below] Mercator Therapeutics has emerged from stealth mode, but just a bit. The Wellesley, MA-based biotech startup has raised $2 million in seed funding from angel backers to gain a license to its technology and do early research in cancer, CEO Chris Guiffre told me this morning via e-mail. The amount of the financing was first reported yesterday, based on information from an SEC filing, by Mass High Tech.

The funding round is the first outside cash to come to the startup. Roy Lobb, formerly a scientist at the Cambridge, MA-based biotech powerhouse Biogen Idec (NASDAQ:BIIB), founded Mercator in November 2009 with former Biogen executive and well-known biotech industry figure Mark Leuchtenberger, who is currently chief executive of the antibiotics developer Rib-X Pharmaceuticals in New Haven, CT, according to Guiffre. Guiffre, whose LinkedIn profile says he’s a former chief counsel of Lexington, MA-based Cubist Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:CBST), said he joined Mercator in April.

Guiffre declined to comment on the specific technology under development at Mercator and would only say that the firm is focused on cancer research (See update below). He also didn’t mention the names of the angel investors who contributed to the startup’s seed round. Guiffre said he and Lobb, who is also a co-founder of Waltham, MA-based Avila Therapeutics, are the startup’s only employees. (Avila’s covalent drug chemistry has made it one of the more exciting biotech startups to surface in recent years, with big-named venture backers like Polaris Venture Partners and Atlas Venture as well as corporate partners such as Novartis and Clovis Oncology.) According to the SEC filing, the Mercator’s board consists of Guiffre, Leuchtenberger, and Lobb.

Leuchtenberger, who is a past chairman of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, told me at the life sciences industry group’s annual meeting in October 2009 that he was raising money for a new biotech startup and might become its CEO if and when its funding came through. But he declined to provide details about the firm at the time. Then in March, Leuchtenberger announced that he had taken over as chief executive of Rib-X. Prior to Rib-X, Leuchtenberger was the CEO of Cambridge-based Targanta Therapeutics, which had major layoffs after the FDA shot down its bid for approval of its lead antibiotic in 2008. Targanta was sold to The Medicines Company in January 2009 for $42 million, with potential milestone payments if the new owner gets FDA approval of Targarta’s antibiotic.

On Thursday morning, the company issued a press release to announce this funding and its license agreement with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The license covers technology based on research by MD Anderson’s Wadih Arap and Renata Pasqualini. They have developed a system of finding peptides that are designed to carry tumor-killing agents to specific targets on cancer cells. The company hopes its drugs developed with the technology will enable cancer-killing drugs to home in on specific tumor targets without damaging healthy tissues. (Editor’s note: The last paragraph of this story was updated to provide additional details about Mercator’s licensing agreement and technology.)