Race to Mine Fungi for Drugs Revs up as Verdine’s LifeMine Gets $55M

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hit the cover of Nature Chemical Biology. They touted a “scalable” technology, named in shorthand FAC-MS, that can sift through important chunks of fungal DNA—what are known as gene clusters—to find molecules that might be useful for drugmaking. In their paper, Kelleher and Keller’s group said they discovered 17 natural products from 56 screened gene clusters.

“We found the needle in the haystack,” Kelleher says. “That’s a hit rate industry should be impressed by.”

The FAC-MS technology is being commercialized by Intact Genomics, Keller, and Kelleher, though Kelleher says “additional partnerships are likely to emerge.” The system adds to an emerging crop of companies attempting to find drugs from fungi. This group already includes LifeMine and a stealthy startup in Menlo Park, CA, called Hexagon Bio. An SEC filing shows Hexagon raised $8.3 million in private financing from nine investors in July. Its co-founders include UCLA chemist Yi Tang, an expert on fungal enzymes; founding 23andme scientist Brian Naughton; and two executives at the Stanford Technology Genome Center, Maureen Hillenmeyer and Colin Harvey. (Hexagon didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Verdine says that Kelleher, Tang, and others have been “blazing a trail” in sequencing the genomes of fungi. “We’re pulling together a lot of insights that have been made by academics. That has helped set the stage for what we’re doing,” he says.

LifeMine, Verdine says, is attempting to become the first industrial-scale mover in the field. Verdine says the company has come up with an algorithm that makes it possible to quickly identify gene clusters in fungi and predict the type and function of the molecules they make. “That allows you to focus on a disease area, and on targets, and also to really focus single mindedly on tweaking the fungi so that they’ll open up and reveal those molecules,” he says.

Kelleher says the big question he has about LifeMine’s claims is how precise this algorithm is in making its predictions. And it’s important to note that, though LifeMine aims to first develop cancer drugs, it is up to four years away from human clinical testing. There is much work to be done to show that, as Verdine says, LifeMine’s genome-mining technology is the “missing piece of the puzzle” in deriving drugs from fungi.

Still, Kelleher calls LifeMine’s purported advances “totally exciting.” In theory, he says, LifeMine might be able to now unearth all of the derivatives of, say, the statin drug—lovastatin—that resulted from the discovery in Japan all those years ago. And from his perspective, the fact that insights like that might be possible means the pharma industry just might start looking into fungi once again.

“This is a renaissance,” he says.

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