Though many people understand metabolism as the process of converting food into the energy the body needs, it also plays a key role in how immune cells work. A growing body of evidence is revealing ways that adjusting metabolism at the cellular level could help immune cells treat disease.
“You can get immune cells to behave differently depending on what they have to use for energy and how they use it,” says Larry Turka, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Rheos Medicines, a new startup formed to exploit these insights.
Rheos has done preliminary work in this emerging field of immunometabolism. The Cambridge, MA-based startup is now unveiling some of what it has done so far, launching with $60 million in financing that it plans to use to advance its research into preclinical studies for inflammation, autoimmune disorders, and more. The Series A round of funding comes entirely from Third Rock Ventures, the venture capital firm that has incubated Rheos for the past year.
Abbie Celniker (pictured above), interim CEO of Rheos, says the company uses computational tools to identify which immune cells have an effect on certain diseases. The company is building an “immune cell encyclopedia.” This catalog records these relationships, comparing immune cells in the presence of disease to those in a state of health. It also identifies the function of an immune cell in treating a disease, as well as the metabolic pathway that modulates the cell. By understanding the metabolic profile of an immune cell and how it changes with disease, Celniker says, Rheos can then develop a small molecule drug that targets the cell. The goal of a Rheos drug is to “tune” the metabolic pathway in order to restore immune cells to a healthy state, she says.
The idea of targeting cellular metabolism to treat disease has precedent. Cambridge-based Agios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AGIO), which was a Third Rock portfolio company, emerged a decade ago aiming to treat cancer by targeting a tumor’s metabolism. Last year, Agios and partner Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) received FDA approval for enasidenib (Idhifa) as a treatment for acute myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer. It was the first metabolism drug to emerge from Agios’ labs.
Celniker says Edward Driggers, the former Agios scientist who developed that company’s metabolomics program, worked on the immunometabolism research that Third Rock incubated. As that research progressed, Turka, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and a Harvard Medical School professor, came on board, first as an entrepreneur in residence in 2016, and then later as a Rheos co-founder.
Turka says that Rheos’ approach could pave the way for a new type of precision medicine. If you know that one particular cell is implicated in a disease, then you don’t need to treat it with a drug that wipes out other cells and their functions in the body, he says. This more targeted approach should be more effective than currently available treatments, while also causing fewer side effects. At least, that’s the goal. Rheos is still a long way away from testing its approach in humans.
The new funding will help Rheos generate more data to build the company’s immune cell encyclopedia, Celniker says. The company will also further develop the compounds it hopes to advance into preclinical trials. Autoimmune conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, and lupus, are Rheos’ initial targets. Celniker says the company’s technology could also be used to develop new cancer drugs. She declined to offer a timeline for starting the first preclinical test, but added that a strategic partnership with a large pharmaceutical company could accelerate or expand the scope of Rheos’ work.
Photo by Rheos Medicines.