Kojin bags $60M to exploit weakness of drug-resistant cancers

Stuart Schreiber and Vasanthi Viswanathan, two of Kojin Therapeutics' scientific founders (John Eaton)

Kojin Therapeutics has raised $60 million to use iron-dependent cell death to treat drug-resistant cancer. The series A round positions the biotech to build on the work its scientific founders did at institutions including Harvard University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Massachusetts-based Kojin’s big idea is to treat diseases by looking at cell states. Traditionally, drug researchers have defined cells by their location and appearance. To Kojin, that approach overlooks internal programs that are shared by cells at sites around the body and are reflected in traits such as responsiveness to drugs. By drugging cell states, Kojin thinks it can selectively target diseased cells and address tough therapeutic challenges.

The initial focus is on the treatment of cancer by targeting cells that are sensitive to iron-dependent cell death, also known as ferroptosis. Using small molecules, Kojin aims to cause a lipid peroxidation chain reaction that destroys the membrane of cells vulnerable to ferroptosis. The cell state also has potential applications in the treatment of fibrosis and immune disorders.

Polaris Partners, Newpath Partners and Cathay Health see promise in the idea, leading them to join forces to power Kojin to a $60 million series A round. The lead investors were joined in the series A by Leaps by Bayer, AbbVie, Eventide Asset Management, Alexandria, Dana-Farber’s Binney Street Capital and several family offices.

The money gives Kojin the means to start turning the work of its scientific founders Stuart Schreiber, Benjamin Cravatt, Stephanie Dougan and Vasanthi Viswanathan into drug candidates. Harvard’s Schreiber, The Scripps Research Institute’s Cravatt and Dana-Farber’s Dougan have taken seats on a scientific advisory board that also features AbbVie’s Steve Davidsen.

The fourth founder, Viswanathan, trained with Schreiber and was the lead author of the 2017 Nature paper that described the vulnerability of drug-resistant cancer cells to ferroptic cell death induced by inhibition of a lipid peroxidase pathway. Viswanathan has taken on the role of head of discovery at Kojin.

Viswanathan is joined in the leadership team by Chief Scientific Officer Kay Ahn, Ph.D., formerly of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen. Kojin has named Polaris’ Amir Nashat as acting CEO and Susan Langer, formerly of Biogen, as acting president.