Nearly two years ago, Versant Ventures used some of its new $400 million fund to set up a drug discovery unit in Europe. The goal was to produce drugs and technology to spin out into independent companies. The first to launch from that effort, Black Diamond Therapeutics, has just emerged with an unusual approach to cancer R&D and $20 million in Series A funding, all provided by Versant.
Black Diamond is developing drugs intended to precisely target mutant oncogenes, genes that can spark the growth of cancers. The conventional approaches to drugging targets, including those in cancer, involves aiming for active sites. These sites are places where a protein binds to a molecule and they’re the traditional targets for small molecule drugs.
Black Diamond is taking a different tack by aiming for allosteric sites, which are places on a molecule that, while less obvious targets than active sites, still have a considerable effect on a molecule. Depending on the target, hitting these secondary sites can either boost a molecule’s activity, or decrease it.
The problem for drug companies is finding a molecule’s allosteric sites, kind of like trying to find a secret door to a castle when storming the front gate doesn’t work. Black Diamond says it has a proprietary algorithm to find allosteric oncogenes, validate them, and show precisely how they are activated. The company’s “MAP” platform, short for mutation, allostery, and pharmacology, then designs a corresponding drug. The company says it has already has four preclinical programs and has picked its first two targets, EGFR-driven lung cancer and HER2-positive breast cancers.
While in stealth mode, Black Diamond says company founders David Epstein and Elizabeth Buck constructed and tested the MAP technology. The startup then worked with Ridgeline, the Versant drug discovery unit, to find lead targets for the drugs, validate them, and develop drug candidates. So far, the Black Diamond technology has produced four preclinical programs.
In addition to supporting its drug programs, Black Diamond says the new funding will establish operations in Toronto to tap that city’s pool of computing expertise.
For many years Versant has been split between Basel, Switzerland, and San Francisco. More recently, it has added footprints in New York and Toronto, trying to get closer to the academic talent of those cities. The firm pursues a “build to buy” approach to its startups, taking an initial position as the lone investor, then advancing either toward an acquisition or a partnership and additional financing. Black Diamond expects another round of financing next year and to push up to three programs into human testing within the next two years.