Q&A: Behind Ignyta’s New Strategy on Cancer Drugs and Diagnostics

Xconomy San Diego — 

Not many biotech startups can reinvent themselves, but San Diego’s Ignyta has executed a series of strategic changes over the past eight months that have set the company on a new course.

Ignyta, founded in August 2011 by Jonathan Lim and Gary Firestein, set out to develop new diagnostic tests for rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, based on epigenetic discoveries from Firestein’s lab at UC San Diego. Firestein is a prominent rheumatologist and the dean of translational medicine at UCSD, and Lim, who is Ignyta’s principal investor, chairman, and CEO, was enthusiastic about the promise of using DNA methylation to develop an early and reliable diagnostic for rheumatoid arthritis when we talked just a year ago.

But the company took its first step in a new direction less than six months later, when Ignyta acquired Actagene Oncology, a San Diego company founded in February. Actagene CEO Patrick O’Connor joined Ignyta as chief scientific officer, along with several other prominent drug hunters.

In a statement at the time, Lim said, “This transaction reshapes us into a seamless Rx/Dx company pursuing a significant growth area of patient stratification and targeted drug discovery and development for cancer patients.” In other words, Ignyta became a cancer company.

Since then, Ignyta has announced that it has licensed exclusive global development and marketing rights for a pair of anti-cancer drug candidates from Nerviano Medical Sciences, a former Pfizer/Pharmacia cancer drug R&D center in Italy. The company also completed a reverse merger with a dormant public company, and raised $54 million through two private placements.

In a recent e-mail exchange, I asked Zach Hornby, Ignyta’s chief financial officer and vice president of corporate development, to explain the company’s new strategy. Following is our exchange, which has been lightly condensed and edited.

Xconomy: Why did Ignyta shift its strategic focus to cancer?

Zach Hornby: We felt that the unmet needs for patients were higher in precision cancer Rx [drugs] than in autoimmune Dx [diagnostics]. We believed that the potential returns for our investors would also be higher in an Rx/Dx model in oncology, rather than a pure Dx model in autoimmunity.

We had the opportunity to … Next Page »

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