Flagship unveils Vesalius with $75M to bankroll ambitious target of treating 90% of human illnesses

When Christopher Austin, M.D., and Doug Cole, M.D., were co-residents at Massachusetts General Hospital in the late '80s, they realized the diagnoses and treatments for common diseases were "both problematic." Now, 30-plus years later, the two have come together to co-found Flagship's Vesalius Therapeutics in a $75 million attempt to solve the problem. 

The Cambridge, Massachusetts biotech, emerged Wednesday with funding from the incubator, behind the likes of Moderna, to go after diseases that influence 90% of human illness. The startup will talk with external investors this year and has already begun discussing partnerships with pharmas, said Cole, Vesalius chair and Flagship managing partner, in a joint interview with CEO Austin. 

The biotech, founded in 2019, revolves around Vesalius' so-called Diamond technology platform that is meant to serve as a prism, Austin said. 

"[L]ike a prism splits sunlight to reveal there’s lots of colors within it, Diamond splits those apparently diagnostically identical syndromic diseases into multiple mechanistic diseases, which we can then make more effective drugs against for the first time," Austin said. He previously served as the founding director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences within the National Institutes of Health.

RELATED: Flagship Pioneering flags down another $2.2B to expand preemptive, pioneering medicine divisions

The proceeds will bankroll preclinical development as Vesalius looks to test its platform across the gamut of neurological, psychiatric, metabolic, autoimmune, cardiovascular and endocrine disorders, Austin said. The funding will also support the hiring of 200 new employees in the next two years, with about one-third of those in data science informatics and computational areas, Austin said. 

The launch comes as Vesalius moves into a new lab today in Cambridge's Kendall Square that is four times the size of the startup's original work space, Cole said. 

With data and other technological advancements, the biopharma industry is ready for the next stage of drug development, according to Austin. If the company is able to "effectively identify responder populations" with its platform, Vesalius could attract biopharma partners that have failed development programs in the past because their clinical populations were too heterogeneous, Austin said. 

"So, could we resurrect some of those failed drugs?" Austin posited about Vesalius' potential.

RELATED: 'Shots on goal' to 'deterministic' drug development: Flagship CEO, Moderna Chair Afeyan pens first annual letter

Many illnesses today have a single diagnosis that serves as an umbrella for various diseases, which is a roadblock in drug development because each of those diseases has a different impact on patients due to distinct biological roots, the biotech said. 

"One of the things that became a bit of an obsession with biotech and pharma for much of the last couple decades is this quite reductionist model where we’re going to take a target out of its biological context, study it and then we’ll try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again when, in fact, Humpty Dumpty couldn’t be put back together again, and the drugs fail," Austin said. 

Vesalius plans on moving multiple drug discovery programs forward in the next year or two, Cole said.