KSQ Therapeutics has raised $76 million and named former Genzyme boss David Meeker as CEO. Meeker is taking charge of a biotech that spent the past 18 months interrogating 20,000 human genes across 600 cancer- and immune-based models, providing it with a wealth of data to power its drug discovery efforts.
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based KSQ is built upon a drug discovery platform it calls CRISPRomics. The idea is to use CRISPR-based screening to look at the function of each gene in the human genome across hundreds of models.
CSO Frank Stegmeier, Ph.D., formerly global head of oncology target discovery at Novartis, and a team that has grown to 40 people have used this approach to identify drug targets likely to have a strong effect on molecularly defined cancer subtypes and minimal toxicity. The team selects these targets by looking for those with strong activity against certain cancers but little to no effect on the wider pool of models.
KSQ sees the scale of the platform—all human genes in hundreds of models—and precision with which gene function is interrogated as setting it apart. These characteristics open the door to discoveries nobody knew to look for.
“What I really love about this platform is we come at it with no bias. Often in drug discovery we have a hypothesis and we're looking to confirm that hypothesis. Here we're just taking on each one of these cell lines or models in an unbiased way,” Meeker said. “We're going to interrogate each of the 20,000 genes. We're not going to assume at the start one is more important than another. We let the data speak.”
The potential of the platform and the quality of the team put together by Stegmeier persuaded Meeker to end his brief spell out of day-to-day biotech management. Meeker spent more than 20 years at Genzyme—the final chunk of which was spent running the now-Sanofi subsidiary—before leaving earlier this year.
Meeker’s arrival coincides with the dialing up of KSQ’s financial might. Flagship Pioneering, one of KSQ’s founding investors, led the round. Polaris Partners, KSQ’s other founding investor, returned alongside new backers ARCH Venture Partners and Alexandria Equities.
KSQ will use some of the money to fund drug discovery programs that grew out of its CRISPRomics work.
“We're now poised to drive multiple drug discovery programs towards the clinic,” Stegmeier said.
KSQ hopes the data it has generated to date will accelerate this process and lead to phase 1 trials that are enriched for patient responder populations. But it has opted against committing publicly to timelines for the progress of the programs.
To advance the programs, KSQ plans to grow its headcount from 40—plus a similar number of outsourced FTEs—to about 80 over the next year, although the rate of hiring could exceed or fall short of that forecast depending on how the science progresses.
The expansion will give KSQ capacity to embark on projects beyond the clutch of aforementioned drug discovery programs.
One of the other projects involves work on targets KSQ identified as high quality but opted against picking for its first batch of in-house programs. KSQ will further investigate these targets that it “might want to think about partnering or doing something else with,” Meeker said.
The third pillar of KSQ’s strategy will apply its capabilities to immuno-oncology.
“We can understand everything about the T cell in a tumor context working in an in vivo model and try to identify, as we have already, targets which increase or improve the ability of the T cell to seek and destroy the tumor,” Meeker said.
That gives KSQ a broad slate of opportunities to pursue and, with $76 million in hand, the means to do so.