Ex-Lilly R&D lead Bilenker launches new cancer biotech with Novartis' oncology R&D head Engelman

Josh Bilenker
(Loxo Oncology)

Josh Bilenker, M.D., and Jeff Engelman M.D., Ph.D., have joined forces to create a new cancer biotech, tapping their combined considerable experience to find new solutions to old oncology research problems.

These are big names: Bilenker was until the start of the year Lilly’s cancer R&D chief, put in that position after the Big Pharma ponied up $8 billion for Bilenker’s startup Loxo Oncology two years back.

It seems Bilenker wants to get back to biotech and is taking Novartis’ vice president and global head of oncology Engelman, who also directs cancer drug discovery at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, along with him.

RELATED: Lilly cancer R&D chief Bilenker quits, handing reins to deputy

Together, they have created Treeline Biosciences, which “will prioritize molecular targets in oncology that are validated but difficult to drug. If successful, we believe that our approaches could apply to other therapeutic areas as well,” according to a mission statement on its new site.

Engelman has now left the Big Pharma, according to his LinkedIn profile, and becomes chief scientific officer and co-founder of the new company. Bilenker becomes CEO.

Details are thin, but the pair is throwing a lot at the problem: “Our efforts will incorporate both established and emerging technologies, across disciplines, including biology (big data genetics, CRISPR, cell biology), chemistry (covalent modifiers, molecular glues, degraders, allosteric approaches), structural biology (Cryo-EM, NMR, X-ray crystallography) and computation (in silico docking, molecular dynamics, machine learning/AI),” it said.

The executives are, for now, keeping a deliberately low profile, but we do know they are based out of Watertown, Massachusetts; Stamford, Connecticut; and San Diego and have raised cash, though we don’t know how much.

The backers are being made public: Treeline's series A was led by Arch Venture Partners, GV and OrbiMed with help from Access Industries, Ajax Health/Zeus and Casdin Capital. It’s also very early-stage and hush-hush.

“There is a ton of work to do, both in building a team and launching the science,” the twosome said. “Please forgive us in advance for keeping a low profile. We’ll report back from the tree line once we’ve marked some new trails.” We’ll keep you posted.