AstraZeneca pays Hoos-helmed Scorpion $75M to take the sting out of undruggable cancer targets

The search for ways to drug the undruggable has led AstraZeneca to the door of Scorpion Therapeutics. In return for $75 million upfront, AstraZeneca has landed the chance to work with the biotech, helmed by Axel Hoos, M.D., Ph.D., on drugs against the transcription factors that control gene expression.

Scorpion has made waves since breaking cover with a $108 million financing round late in 2020, adding a further $162 million early in 2021 and disclosing the appointment of Hoos, formerly head of oncology at GlaxoSmithKline, as CEO just months later. Now, Scorpion has landed a Big Pharma partnership to go with the other trappings of a fast-rising biotech. 

The collaboration will see Scorpion lead discovery and certain preclinical work using a precision oncology drug-hunting platform that combines cancer biology tools such as genomewide CRISPR with medicinal chemistry and data sciences capabilities including chemical proteomics and supercomputing.

Scorpion is initially internally applying the platform to validated oncogene targets to create best-in-class molecules, but it is also exploring its potential to deliver drug candidates against novel and undruggable targets. The undruggable opportunity, specifically the chance to act on transcription factors, has caught the eye of AstraZeneca.

RELATED: GSK oncology exec Hoos heads back to biotech as CEO of Scorpion Therapeutics

“Unlocking potentially transformative biology is pivotal for delivering the next wave of cancer treatments,” Susan Galbraith, M.D., Ph.D., executive vice president of oncology R&D at AstraZeneca, said in a statement. “Scorpion’s innovative platform is a strong strategic fit as we explore a range of new modalities across our broad drug discovery toolbox with promise to disrupt the activity of these highly-validated cancer targets.”

Mutated or dysregulated transcription factors are known to play roles in cancers and other diseases. Yet, the structural disorder and lack of binding sites for small molecules means the proteins were viewed as undruggable for years. New approaches such as PROTACs have suggested it may now be possible to go after transcription factors, but the opportunity presented by the proteins remains largely untapped.

Scorpion recently began recruiting for a “scientific leader with a deep knowledge of cancer biology and lineage transcription factors,” positioning it to step up its efforts to discover small molecules against the proteins.