Escient Pharma grabs $40M to push orphan GPCR drugs into the clinic

Escient Pharmaceuticals launched Wednesday with $40 million in series A funding to develop novel G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR)-targeted drugs for a wide range of indications. The startup's first focus will be neuro-immuno-inflammatory and autoreactive diseases. 

GPCRs, a class of membrane receptor, bind a variety of signaling molecules and are involved in a proliferation of functions in the human body. Researchers estimate that between one-third and one-half of all marketed drugs act by binding to GPCRs, according to Nature. GPCR drugs treat a range of diseases and conditions, including diabetes, asthma, depression and cardiovascular diseases. 

Escient is interested in the GPCRs that, to date, have no known function or ligand, said Alain Baron, M.D., the company's CEO. By targeting these orphaned GPCRs, the company aims to develop drugs that treat unserved indications. Baron stayed vague about the therapeutic indications Escient is chasing but did clarify that it is not pursuing autoimmune diseases targeted to the nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis. 

"We are excited about being able to pursue a novel class that has been quite mysterious. … We are excited to crack this nut and bring forth novel therapies for serious diseases," Baron said. 

The capital, raised from The Column Group, 5AM Ventures and Osage University Partners, will help Escient build its team and move its preclinical pipeline into the clinic. It gives the startup runway into 2021, by which point it aims to get into the clinic for one or two indications, Baron said. The company is currently a team of "four, going on five," but plans to expand its ranks to 15 to 20 staffers in the next 12 to 18 months, he added. 

“We quickly recognized the tremendous opportunity of the orphan GPCRs that Escient is targeting,” said Robert Tjian, Ph.D., discovery partner at The Column Group, and a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. “Alain and [Chief Scientific Officer Marcus Boehm's] GPCR-specific experience and previous entrepreneurial successes, coupled with [scientific adviser Xinzhong Dong’s] indisputable scholarship in this area, well position Escient in this historically productive area of drug discovery and development.”