Some of the targets in cancer research are visible and well known, but they’re hard to hit with new drugs all the same. PIC Therapeutics is developing medicines aiming for one particularly elusive group of proteins, and the startup’s early research has attracted financial support from some prominent names in the life sciences industry.
PIC announced Wednesday that it has raised $5 million in seed financing. The funding round was led by Advent Life Sciences, a London-based investment firm. Individual backers also joined the financing, including Belinda Termeer, the widow of former Genzyme CEO Henri Termeer.
The research of Boston-based PIC focuses on the process that can produce cancer-causing proteins. All proteins are made in cellular machinery that translates genetic instructions carried by messenger RNA. PIC focuses on eukaryotic initiation factors, which are groups of proteins involved in the first phase of translating the instructions. The company specifically targets eukaryotic initiation factor 4F (eIF4E). Sun Altbach, president and CEO of PIC, says her company’s drugs aim to hit eIF4F, blocking the production of cancer proteins. “PIC” is short for pre-initiation complex.
“We’re right at the first step that is intimately involved in the unwinding of getting that messenger RNA translated into protein,” Altbach says.
PIC’s small molecules aim to address two problems in cancer therapy: the ability of cancers to become resistant to therapy, as well as tumor heterogeneity, or the variation between cells in a patient’s tumors that can make it difficult to find therapy that’s broadly effective. Altbach says the drugs don’t completely shut down eIF4E, just the part of it that makes oncogenic proteins. This selective approach should minimize unwanted side effects from a PIC drug. So far, the company has early data from animal studies that shows the molecules are selectively modulating eIF4E. Altbach says it’s too early to say which cancers the company’s drugs could treat, but she adds that the tests show the potential to address many types of cancer.
A handful of companies have tried to develop eIF4E-targeting drugs. In 2001, Carlsbad, CA-based Ionis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: IONS), which was then known as Isis Pharmaceuticals, began a partnership with Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY) that included an antisense drug intended to block eIF4E. The Indianapolis-based drug giant tested the compound in Phase 1 before returning its rights in 2009. In January, San Diego-based eFFECTOR Therapeutics announced that Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) paid the biotech $15 million up front to kick off a partnership developing small molecules that target eIF4E. Research funding and milestone payments could bring eFFECTOR up to $492 million more.
PIC’s science is based on molecules licensed from Harvard University. The research comes from the laboratory of Gerhard Wagner, professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School. PIC started in 2018 but has kept mostly quiet the past two years. With the new cash, Altbach says the company plans to do the preclinical research that will support a formal FDA application to proceed to clinical trials. At that point, she expects the company will be in a position to explore partnerships with other companies or raise additional financing.