After Spinning Onyx into Gold, Coles Returns to Lead a CNS Startup

Xconomy Boston — 

Tony Coles could easily be on a beach sipping mai tais right now. You can plan for an early retirement in biotech when you turn two different companies around and steer the latest one of them into a $10 billion buyout.

But the 54-year-old Coles, who helped restructure NPS Pharmaceuticals and then lead Onyx Pharmaceuticals to a sale to Amgen last year, is showing that he has no plans to kick back and call it a career. He’s come out of a year-plus hiatus today to announce his latest move—and it’s not the sort that you’d expect from someone used to either working at, or running, large companies with drugs either on the market or in clinical trials.

Instead, Coles is taking on an entirely new challenge. He’s going from the Bay Area to the East Coast, and leading a brand new startup called Yumanity Therapeutics that’s launching today in Cambridge, MA. Yumanity intends to tackle some of the most notoriously difficult to treat neurological disorders—like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer’s Disease, and Parkinson’s Disease.

Coles is a founding investor in Yumanity and its chairman and CEO. He formed the company with scientific founder Susan Lindquist, with the goal of treating diseases caused by protein misfolding—when a mistake occurs in the complicated origami that turns a long linear chain of amino acids into a functional, three-dimensional protein. The company claims that an in-house proprietary platform has unearthed a potential new drug target for Parkinson’s. It’ll start out advancing a potential drug for the condition, while trying to identify lead compounds for Alzheimer’s and ALS.

Developing treatments for these diseases, of course, has historically been difficult. Many companies have tried and spectacularly failed to do so—in part because the underlying biology of what’s really going wrong in these patients isn’t crystal clear. But Yumanity believes its drug discovery platform—which utilizes three integrated methods, including testing drug candidates against stem-cell-derived neurons—might give it a chance to succeed where so many have failed.

These drug discovery methods came from Lindquist’s lab at the Whitehead Institute and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. They were developed by Lindquist and Yumanity’s other scientific co-founders, scientists Vikram Khurana, Chee-yeun Chung, and Daniel Tardiff—all three will leave their posts at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Whitehead to join Yumanity full-time. Former Biogen Idec neurology executive Kenneth Rhodes is Yumanity’s chief scientific officer.

Tony Coles, CEO of Yumanity Therapeutics

Tony Coles, CEO of Yumanity Therapeutics

“[O]ur unique approach overcomes the fundamental limitations of today’s target-based drug discovery by exploiting the power of phenotypic screening in yeast and human stem cell-derived neurons,” Coles said in a statement. “This approach is the Yumanity advantage and enables us to identify potential new therapies to modify the cause of these diseases at the cellular level.”

The move is a big departure for Coles. He’s a clinician by training who made the move to industry in the early ’90s, rising through the ranks at large pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb before switching over to biotech just after the turn of the century. He spent three years as a commercial executive at Vertex Pharmaceuticals before moving on to Bedminster, NJ-based NPS Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: NPSP) in 2005. He was named CEO the following year. NPS was then a developer of osteoporosis drugs, and shortly after Coles came aboard, the FDA rejected its lead drug, known as Preos, and asked for another clinical trial—one the company couldn’t afford. Coles and Francois Nader (who would succeed him as CEO) then helped engineer a … Next Page »

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