Drug-Hunting Startup From Scripps Attracts Celgene Alum, $50M Backing

Xconomy San Diego — 

A team of decorated academic chemists in San Diego have been working since 2014 on a biotech startup that aims to find new drugs faster. The company now has a lot of cash in the bank and a well-known biopharma scientist to guide it.

Vividion Therapeutics is launching with $50 million pledged from investment firms Arch Venture Partners and Versant Ventures. Former Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) president of research and early development Tom Daniel—who, as Xconomy reported previously, left the company over the summer to begin advising biotechs and venture firms—is executive chairman.

In an interview, Daniel (pictured) said that one of the academics, Benjamin Cravatt of The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, collaborated with Celgene for some time, an alliance that served as a “training-wheels run for me to understand Ben’s vision.”

Cravatt, whom Daniel calls the “driver,” and two other Scripps researchers, Jin-Quan Yu and Phil Baran, have built a system for testing chemical drugs against proteins in human cells, to see if disrupting those proteins can have an effect on disease. (Cravatt is the only one of the three that hasn’t won a Macarthur “genius” grant or the Sackler Prize, a top award for chemists under 40.)

Researchers looking for new drugs have tried for years to make products that change the behavior of proteins. For example, protease inhibitors to treat HIV infection work this way, blocking an enzyme that the virus uses to spread.

The field has gotten a boost from “rational drug design”—using a simulated computer model to build a chemical and simulate how it would lock onto a tiny crevice of a protein. But “in silico” simulations can only go so far. (One recent startup, Relay Therapeutics, is throwing unprecedented amounts of computing power at the study of proteins for drug discovery.)

Vividion is using bioinformatics, too, its backers say. But the appeal is that the Scripps researchers have built a system that looks at actual, not simulated, biology. Their system can map a small molecule’s effect in a human cell—or in a tissue sample—and not just on one protein, but a wide range of proteins. “The big shift,” says Vividion board member and Versant managing director Tom Woiwode, is screening potential drugs “deeply and broadly within natural biological systems” instead of using tests that don’t capture the complexity of the interactions between a protein, or proteins, and the “whole cell environment.”

Part of Vividion’s expertise, say Woiwode and Daniel, is also the ability to make tiny changes to the small molecules they’re testing. They claim the company has already identified potential drugs for targets on proteins that, while known to have a hand in disease, to date have been considered “undruggable.” Daniel mentioned the protein RAS, implicated in a range of cancers but to date a dead end for drug makers, as an example of an intractable target. But he declined to say where Vividion is focusing its efforts.