Scientists know that proteins called solute carrier (SLC) transporters move substances important to metabolism across cellular membranes. But can drugs effectively hit these proteins to treat disease? Roche is paying startup Jnana Therapeutics $40 million to find out.
The alliance announced Tuesday focuses on the discovery and preclinical development of drugs for immunological and neurological diseases. In addition to the upfront cash payment, Roche may provide its new partner with research funding. Boston-based Jnana could earn milestone payments tied to the progress of the research, and royalties from sales if Roche is able to commercialize any drugs from the alliance. The breakdown of those payments wasn’t disclosed, but the companies say that the total value tops $1 billion.
SLC transporters act like gatekeepers, controlling how the molecular byproducts of metabolism move in and out of cells and organs. These proteins ensure that metabolites, which are chemical building blocks and nutrients, are in the right place at the right time, Jnana says. If metabolites are in the wrong place, or if SLC transporters aren’t working properly, disease can result. Despite the critical role that these proteins play, they’ve been largely overlooked in drug research. A “shockingly low” 20 of the 450 SLC proteins are targeted by currently approved drugs, CEO Joanne Kotz and Chief Scientific Officer Joel Barrish say in a blog post.
“Jnana” (pronounced “juh-NA-na”) is the Sanskrit word that means knowledge gained through experience, according to the company’s blog post. Company executives say the term “captured the knowledge that the team brought to Jnana and the SLC experience we were about to build.”
The dearth of R&D in SLC transporters meant that that the available drug discovery research tools weren’t a fit. So Jnana developed its own technology. The Jnana/Roche alliance will use the startup’s proprietary “RAPID” platform, a cell-based technology that screens libraries of small molecules to find ones that modulate SLC transporters.
The payment from Roche will help Jnana finance ongoing development of its own pipeline of SLC transporter-targeting drugs. The company has yet to disclose the disease targets of its research. In the blog post, Kotz said these drugs would address disorders that have limited or no treatment options.
Jnana is based on the research of academic co-founders Stuart Schreiber, a Harvard University professor of chemistry and chemical biology, and Ramnik Xavier, chief of gastroenterology at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. The company emerged in 2017 backed by $50 million in Series A financing.
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