Pfizer, Novartis-backed British biotech Artios nabs Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca R&D veteran

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Cambridge, U.K.-based Artios Pharma has already grabbed the attention of Pfizer and Novartis. (Poohz/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

DNA damage response specialist Artios Pharma is the latest biotech to call a pharma executive into the startup fold as it poaches Ian Smith, M.D., as its new chief medical officer.

Smith, who will now run all of the biotech’s research work, comes to the Cambridge, U.K.-based biotech from Eli Lilly where, as a senior medical director, he worked on Lilly's oncology R&D.

Before Lilly, he spent eight years at AstraZeneca where he was involved in the early clinical development of several oncology compounds and led a cross-portfolio team for breast cancer. As global clinical team leader, he was responsible for its cancer work.  

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Three-year-old Artios is hoping to go places, coming off a meaty £65 million ($84 million) series B last year with backing from Pfizer and Novartis. Smith adds extra kudos to the burgeoning British biotech, which typically doesn't get these sorts of raises, executives and attention.

What’s attracting these players and VCs is the company’s programs in DNA damage response (DDR), in-licensed from Cancer Research UK and Masaryk University, from which it is hoping to create next-generation DDR therapies that could be PARP 2.0.

Smith will oversee its small molecule DDR drugs, including a lead candidate that targets DNA polymerase theta (Polθ). Artios’ interest in Polθ rests on evidence of its role in a DNA repair pathway and its upregulation in a range of solid tumors. This evidence suggests Polθ inhibitors could selectively kill cancer cells by disrupting a DNA repair process they need to survive. Combining the inhibitor with chemotherapy or radiotherapy may further dial up the efficacy.

Artios’ Polθ inhibitor and other programs follow the same general approach as PARP inhibitors but go after different enzymes involved in DNA repair. These enzymes collectively play a bigger role in DNA repair than PARP but were overlooked initially due to technological limitations. Those barriers have come down in recent years as assays and cell-based technologies have advanced, enabling Artios to build a DDR pipeline beyond PARP.

Smith said: “The Artios pipeline offers one of the most exciting approaches to cancer treatment. I look forward to working with the rest of the management team and world-leading Clinical Advisory Board, to progress our pipeline of DDR therapies, particularly Polθ which has multiple opportunities to treat some difficult cancers, providing new treatment options for patients.”

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