Relay uncloaks with $57M Series A round to join the next-gen cancer race

Third Rock Ventures’ Relay Therapeutics has broken from its 12-month stealth mode with a $57 million Series A cash boost as it looks to create a next-generation “3-D movie platform” for drug discovery.

The biotech, based in Cambridge, MA, is using the dynamic structural changes undergone by protein molecules within the body to design a new platform for drug discovery that it believes will become the new and accepted way of finding new meds in the future. Its focus initially will be on cancer.

Alexis Borisy, executive chairman and interim CEO of Relay Therapeutics and a partner at Third Rock Ventures, explained to FierceBiotech: “What we are doing is a paradigm shift philosophically, enabled by new technologies, about how we think about designing drugs. If we’re successful, a generation from now this will all be conventional wisdom--but it will be a very big shift from what people are doing today.

“So what are we doing? To put it in the simplest terms, there is the classic phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ well then a movie is worth thousands of pictures. So, you look at a still picture, you see a small set of information; but if you look at a movie of the same situation, you can understand so much more.

“That’s what Relay is about; it’s about the movies of the molecular machine at the root of disease. And so if we go back 50 years, this was when we had the first snapshot of the root of a disease and that was hemoglobin, and that was around sickle cell. Here, we said these people have this genetic variant and this then leads to this structural change.

“This was a long time ago now and it took a generation, from that initial discovery with crystallography, for structure-based drug design to become the heart of how we make drugs. That’s what Vertex Pharmaceuticals was all about a generation ago, so in 1989 when it was created it would take what was then cutting-edge tech and put structure, so that snapshot, of the molecular picture at the center of the discovery process.”

Borisy says that we’re still doing that today, using these snapshots built on tech from nearly 30 years ago which was designed on an idea from 50 years ago. “So Relay is now going to move us on again, to a third generation, from a snapshot to a moving picture using what is now cutting-edge empirical, wet techniques in the lab using sophisticated instrumentation and molecular dynamic computer simulation. You merge these data sets together to create these really rich ‘movies’ of what’s going on.”

Full details of these techniques and systems are not yet being disclosed, but the Relay “special sauce,” as Borisy deems it, is “creating the integrated team that combines these structural biologists, biophysicists, computational people, modelers with great medicinal chemistry understanding, and putting all that together.”

Why is this so important? Borisy says that biology is all about motion--proteins are not just sitting around and do not exist as snapshots. They are flexible and in flux, but for decades, scientists have just been looking at these freeze frames. “By seeing the movie, you can see all sorts of new possibilities you never saw before about how to make new medicines. This also allows you to create drugs for targets that you couldn’t before. And we’re the only ones who are doing this.”

The biotech, which has around 25 staffers, has been in stealth mode for the past year and under the Third Rock program for the past two years. Relay plans to use this platform to create its own compounds, notably in oncology and genomic targets that have not been druggable before. Specific targets have not yet been released, but Borisy said this could also be “very powerful” in rare diseases, inflammation and other areas.

The plan is to then make drugs for themselves in oncology and some large therapeutic-area partnerships in the future. “We won’t be licensing out the platform,” Borisy says, “but we want those deep partnerships and collaborations to really leverage what we’ve got here.” Borisy says they already are in “very deep talks” with heads of R&D and discovery from across a lot of the big companies. “The enthusiasm for this approach is extraordinarily high,” he explains. “As one person said to me, ‘this is courageous and a big deal; if you can do this, this really will be a fundamental shift.’”

Timelines for when it plans to reach the lab with its compounds have not been set, but the company is “up and running aggressively.” As with most Third Rock upstarts, Borisy will be the interim CEO in the near-term, but a lead and exec team are set to be built up in the next year.