Butting in on cellular dialogue to treat a host of diseases
CEO: George Vlasuk
Based: Cambridge, MA
Clinical focus: mTOR regulation
The scoop: Cells, like the people they make up, need food and oxygen to survive. And a certain protein kinase, called mTOR, regulates how they respond to nearby nutrients, effectively controlling their appetites. But when something goes wrong in that process, over- or underactive mTOR action can contribute to metabolic, neurological and inflammatory diseases. Navitor Pharmaceuticals, an early-stage biotech startup, has platform technology that promises to elbow its way into that equation and dial regulation up or down, lighting the way for a new class of treatments that address a wide range of ailments.
What makes Navitor Fierce: While the mTOR pathway has been fairly well-understood for some time, current therapies struggle to run the aforementioned cellular interference because they fail to distinguish between the kinase's overarching protein complexes, called mTORC1 and mTORC2. Navitor, thanks to discoveries by co-founder and Whitehead Institute researcher David Sabatini, has the ability to target solely mTORC1, which plays the largest role in cell growth.
With that selective targeting capability, the company's candidates can single out and modulate mTORC1, turning it up to make cells gorge themselves or cranking it down to starve them out, CEO George Vlasuk said. And the applications are vast, he said: Poorly regulated mTORC1 is found in metabolic diseases like diabetes and obesity; neurodegenerative conditions including Alzheimer's disease; inflammatory afflictions like psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis; and a host of rare genetic diseases.
The technology's potential was enough to sway some A-list investors, including Atlas Venture, Polaris Partners, GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) SR One and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), all of which chipped in for the biotech's recent $23.5 million A round. J&J has taken a particular interest in Navitor, augmenting its investment by adopting the company into its innovation program and spotlighting Navitor's metabolic ambitions as particularly promising.
Now it's on Navitor to execute, Vlasuk said. At the moment, the virtual 6-person company is still fleshing out its ranks, getting its "chemical equity" in line as it presses into the discovery stage with its top prospects with hopes of hitting the clinic by 2016, he said.
Navitor's list of disease prospects stands out in a biotech world enamored with rare diseases and genetic defects. Drug development in diabetes and Alzheimer's is costly and beguiling even to Big Pharma, let alone a company with single-digit employees. And Vlasuk is upfront about the likelihood that Navitor will need to find a partner in those indications down the road, but he's not sweating it at the moment. If mTORC1 regulation pans out as the company expects, there will be plenty of conversations to be had. Instead, Navitor's bigger challenge will be deciding just when to do a deal, Vlasuk said. Strike too early and you risk undervaluing your own assets, or, worse, tripping up your IP by outlicensing technology you need for another program.
Vlasuk has plenty of experience chasing a single biological pathway with pan-disease applications. The drug development veteran spent four years at the helm of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which devoted its efforts to treatments targeting the SIRT1 enzyme. GlaxoSmithKline paid $720 million for the biotech back in 2008 and tapped Vlasuk to lead it as a company within a company, a structure dissolved in 2013 as Sirtris' multiple shots on goal came up short.
Now, transitioning from a sizable biotech with GSK's backing to a venture-funded startup, Vlasuk is focusing on what the two gigs have in common: diving into complicated biology in hopes of better treating some serious diseases.
"What's exciting is that the science is changing almost every single day," he said, as Navitor gets daily updates from Sabatini's Whitehead lab. "Things are changing so dramatically, and for us that's a huge boost to everybody when they come in in the morning."
Investors: Polaris Partners, Atlas Venture, Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation, SR One, the Longevity Fund
Navitor grabs a $23.5M A round to tackle a key crossroad for disease
-- Damian Garde (email | Twitter)