Roche, Jnana take aim at metabolite transporters in $40M discovery deal

The Jnana Therapeutics team (Jnana Therapeutics)

Roche has another drug discovery deal on the books. This time, it’s with Jnana Therapeutics, the biotech targeting a family of more than 400 metabolite transporters with small molecules. The Big Pharma is handing over $40 million upfront but is promising a billion more in the usual development and commercialization milestones, as well as royalties.

The partnership focuses on specific targets in a family of proteins called solute carriers, or SLCs. The duo will work on discovery and preclinical development for “a broad set of targets” in immunology and neurological disease. Beyond that, Roche will take over further development and commercialization.

SLCs are membrane proteins that sit on the cell surface, or inside the cell, and control the movement of metabolites such as glucose, cholesterol, amino acids and metals, in and out of cells, or to the right location within cells.

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Others have drugged SLCs before, but in piecemeal efforts that addressed the proteins individually rather than a family with shared characteristics.

“There are hundreds of metabolites and hundreds of transporters, which work in a cell-specific way and a disease-specific way,” Joanne Kotz, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Jnana, told Fierce Biotech. “In that backdrop, it’s shocking that only 20 of the known SLCs are targeted by approved drugs. The opportunity to target SLCs as a target class has been blocked by the absence of systematic discovery technology to do it.”

So, Kotz, along with Jnana's chief scientific officer, Joel Barrish, and academic co-founders Ramnik Xavier and Stuart Schreiber, decided to build that technology. They hired a team of chemists and chemical biologists who figured out how to target a group of proteins with many different structures, functions and substrates.

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The result is RAPID, short for Reactive Affinity Probe Interaction Discovery, a platform that focuses on how SLCs bind to their substrates rather than what jobs they do. Now that it’s built the platform, Jnana is ready to move into its “next phase,” Kotz and Barrish wrote in a blog post.

The Roche deal is part of that. Another part is progressing Jnana’s internal pipeline. It’s pushing forward its own programs in rare diseases as well as more prevalent conditions. Jnana isn’t revealing the target and disease of its lead program, but Kotz said its internal work aims at proteins that are not covered by the collaboration with Roche.

“We are focused around metabolite-dependent diseases,” Kotz said, referring to diseases caused by too little or too much of a metabolite. “This is our unique lens on where we think targeting SLC transporters is going to be highly effective … Targeting the right SLC transporter in the right place could be the right lever to fix that dysregulation.”