Mercator Therapeutics Embarks on Journey to Develop Targeted Cancer Drugs

Xconomy Boston — 

Mercator Therapeutics is at the beginning of a journey to commercialize drugs derived from a new way of discovering treatments for cancer. Recently, the biotech startup closed a $2 million seed round of financing and completed an initial licensing deal for its peptide-based drugs. It now plans to settle into its first corporate office in Waltham, MA, after operating virtually since its founding in November 2009.

While Mercator is a young outfit, the executives behind the venture are veterans of the biotech industry. For instance, Roy Lobb, Mercator’s co-founder, chief scientist, and chairman, was one of the lead scientists behind Biogen Idec’s hot multiple sclerosis drug, natalizumab (Tysabri), and has been a founder of several biotechs such as Waltham, MA-based Avila Therapeutics. In fact, it’s the firm’s combination of exciting talent and recognizable names that drew me back to its story.

Last month, we were early on the news about the firm’s seed round and licensing deal with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Yesterday, Lobb, Mercator co-founder Mark Leuchtenberger, and CEO Chris Guiffre mapped out where the company wants to go with its drugs, which are based on a new approach to discovering cancer treatments called in vivo phage display. They also provided some perspective on the potential power of this technology, developed at MD Anderson, to help improve doctors’ ability to deliver cancer-killing drugs only to disease tissues, sparing healthy tissues.

At MD Anderson, researchers and Mercator co-founders Wadih Arap and Renata Pasqualini have been working on the vivo phage display technology for years. Its aim is to discover specific protein fragments, or peptides, that home in on tumor cells. The system also allows them to identify which specific receptors on the cells those peptides found their way to, Lobb explained.

Once it identifies cancer-targeting peptides, Mercator aims to turn them into delivery vehicles that will carry various tumor-killing agents to cancer cells. The startup has licensed nine peptide-receptor pairs for cancer treatment from MD Anderson. The lead drug involved in the deal is in initial human clinical trials for patients whose prostate cancer has spread to their bones. The team at MD Anderson is running that trial, and Mercator’s Guiffre says that data from the study are expected to show whether the peptide drug found its way to the intended tumor sites.

The MD Anderson researchers hope to identify more such tumor-targeting peptides through a special program at the center. In it, patients with terminal cancer are injected, under strict ethical guidelines, with libraries of engineered viruses called … Next Page »

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