Harvard Professor Steps Down to Pilot Warp Drive Bio

Xconomy Boston — 

Warp Drive Bio has been laying in the weeds ever since Sanofi, Third Rock Ventures, and Greylock partners helped form it with a $125 million financing in January 2012 and a plan to hit previously undruggable disease targets by tapping into nature. After staying out of the news for about 18 months, the Cambridge, MA-based company added some big names to its board, and shed some light on its future plans.

Company co-founder Gregory Verdine, a Harvard University chemical biologist for more than two decades and a Third Rock venture partner, has taken a leave of absence from the university to become Warp Drive’s full-time CEO. Verdine is stepping in for a Third Rock partner, Alexis Borisy, who will now become Warp Drive’s executive chairman. Verdine says he is on leave from Harvard for “upward of three years,” during which time he is putting “a great majority” of his attention on Warp Drive.

“I will not attempt to predict what happens after that,” he says.

Warp Drive has lured two other big fish to help ramp itself up. Infinity Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: INFI) R&D chief and Millennium Pharmaceuticals veteran Julian Adams has joined its board of directors. And James Nichols, former president and CEO of Resolvyx Pharmaceuticals, has been named Warp Drive’s chief operating officer.

The management shuffling represents the first time Warp Drive has emerged from stealth mode since the announcement surrounding its creation 18 months ago when it was co-founded by Verdine, Harvard University genomics expert George Church, and biochemist James Wells of the University of California at San Francisco.

The deal that created Warp Drive was unusual: Warp Drive secured $125 million in financing from Third Rock, Sanofi (NYSE: SNY), and Greylock Partners that not only gave the company five years of financial leeway tied to various developmental milestones, but also a firm commitment from Sanofi to acquire Warp Drive at an agreed-on price if certain targets are hit.

Gregory Verdine, CEO of Warp Drive Bio

So what would pique Sanofi’s interest in this fashion, and cause Verdine, who has helped found a number of biotechs—among them Gloucester Pharmaceuticals (acquired by Celgene), Eleven Biotherapeutics, Aileron Therapeutics, and Enanta Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ENTA)—to step away from his high-profile, secure day job?

It’s the development of a proprietary genomic search engine that can efficiently sequence the genomes of the microbes hidden in natural substances such as plants and soil. Warp Drive’s grand plan is to use that information to uncover molecules from nature that can hit currently undruggable disease targets, and turn them into drugs that it can either partner with other companies, or develop on its own.

Warp Drive believes using this method to create drugs gives it a potentially big cost efficiency advantage, and a high probability of clinical success. Verdine says that molecules derived from natural products are being approved by the FDA today at the same rate as they were about 40 years ago. That efficiency comes despite a considerable lack of funding by pharmaceutical companies nowadays.

“These are probably really just better molecules, and always were better,” he says. “The problems were that they took too long to discover and that one was often rediscovering the same things over and over again.”

Verdine explains the reason this happened is because many of the novel genes in the bacteria aren’t expressed, and remain “dark,” or turned off, and thus can’t be seen. By sequencing the microbes’ genetic material, however, Warp Drive can illuminate them, and find the roadmap needed to make a number of drugs.

“They’re there, hiding in plain sight,” Verdine says.

Over the past year and a half, Warp Drive has sequenced the entire genomes of more than 50,000 bacteria, most of which come from dirt. That library represents the largest collection of such data in existence, according to Verdine.

While Verdine says that “individual pieces” of Warp Drive’s plan have been practiced elsewhere, the combined tasks needed to perform it—which require specialized microbiology, sequencing the genomes, genetically engineering molecules to light up the dark genes, and so on—are what separate the company from others.

“The scale and scope of what this platform is, is really orders of magnitude different than what has been attempted to be assembled before,” Borisy says.

Warp Drive has used that information to get ahold of a number of molecules that it plans to start marching towards clinical trials. Warp Drive doesn’t know what diseases it will target in its initial efforts, because it simply isn’t there yet.

“What we’ve decided is to go after a class of molecules, rather than target, per se, and when we find these high pedigree molecules—molecules having a great pharmaceutical pedigree—then these molecules lead us to their targets,” Verdine says. “Our idea is nature has already been drugging fundamental pathways, and we discover those molecules, figure out what the pathways are and that leads us to the area of therapy.”

If Warp Drive is successful in doing so, it won’t benefit just Sanofi. While its ultimate destination is as a Sanofi subsidiary, Warp Drive is free to partner as it chooses. Verdine expects the company to form partnerships with a few other pharmaceutical companies to create drugs in different therapeutic areas and finance those efforts through collaboration dollars. It also expects there to be molecules that arise during that process that it’ll want to take forward on its own, according to Verdine.

Warp Drive triggered a tranche of financing from the Sanofi deal when it got its platform up and running (Verdine declined to specify how much Warp Drive got). Its next goal is to push molecules through the pipeline, begin understanding how they behave in cells, and start to do work in animal models of human disease. By the third year of its existence, Warp Drive hopes to push those molecules through studies that will ultimately lead the company into clinical trials.

At this point, all that Warp Drive has proven is that its hypothesis works. Translating that into drugs that are tested in human beings is a whole other matter—big enough to get a tenured Harvard professor to take a lengthy sabbatical.

“The opportunity to lead Warp Drive through its next phase of development was simply too extraordinary to pass up,” Verdine says.