Proteins play important roles in cells, folding and changing their shape to perform various biological functions. While many of these shapes are important to healthy cell function, some shapes are linked to disease, says Sanjiv Patel, CEO of Relay Therapeutics.
Relay has developed a way to see this protein motion, and use that moving image to guide its drug discovery work. Visualization techniques and computational analysis have yielded the Cambridge, MA, company a pipeline of preclinical compounds developed as potential cancer treatments. Patel (pictured above) says Relay aims to start testing some of those compounds in humans within two years and it now has $63 million in new funding to work toward that goal.
Harnessing computing power to discover and develop new drugs is not a new idea. Nimbus Therapeutics, another Cambridge-based biotech startup, is one company that has used computational drug discovery tools to understand how a drug binds to a molecular target, which in turn helps in the screening of compounds that could hit that target. Big pharma companies also use computing power to screen compounds in the search for new drugs.
While Relay’s workforce of 40 includes scientists trained in biology and chemistry, Patel says his staff also includes computer scientists. Relay is using various technological tools to discern the configurations of a protein. A Relay drug, Patel says, could lock the protein in a “safe” shape. Efforts to discover new drugs by studying proteins has been hampered by viewing proteins as static, rather than as the dynamic compounds that they are within a cell, he says. But studying protein motion could lead to drugs that are more selective in hitting a target, and are also potentially more potent.
“We believe this allows us to discover and develop medicines totally differently, and in a much more efficient and timely manner,” Patel says.
Relay’s new funding, a Series B round, comes 15 months after the company closed $57 million in Series A financing. At that time, Relay executives could not offer a timeline for starting clinical trials. The company has made progress in the last year. Patel, who in April left his post as chief strategy officer of Allergan (NYSE: AGN) to become Relay’s CEO, now says that if all goes well with the preclinical work, Relay could begin its first clinical trial in 2019. Patel won’t disclose Relay’s lead disease targets other than to say that though the company’s approach could apply to many different diseases, the initial focus will be cancer drugs. Patel says Relay has “multiple programs” in oncology moving toward clinical trials.
BVF Partners led Relay’s Series B round of funding. Joining BVF were new investors GV (formerly Google Ventures), Casdin Capital, EcoR1 Capital, and Section 32. Earlier investors Third Rock Ventures and Alexandria Venture Investments also participated. With the latest round, Kanishka Pothula, managing director at BVF Partners, will join Relay’s board of directors.
Here’s more on Relay’s origins and its protein motion-based drug discovery work.
Photo by Relay Therapeutics