Rome snags Merck, Celgene vet Zaller as new CSO

Rome Therapeutics CEO Rosana Kapeller
"Dennis has an insatiable curiosity and a passion for solving scientific mysteries to improve care for patients, which is foundational to Rome’s mission and culture," said Rome Therapeutics CEO Rosana Kapeller. (Rome Therapeutics)

Four months after launch, Rome Therapeutics has hired a new chief scientist. Dennis Zaller, Ph.D., arrives at the startup from Celgene, where he spent five years overseeing partnerships with early-stage biotechs across immunology, fibrosis and immuno-oncology and ushering six new drugs into the clinic.

Before Celgene, Zaller spent 25 years at Merck Research Laboratories. As he worked his way up the ranks, Zaller led drug discovery teams, helping move 28 molecules into the clinic, eight of which scored approval.

As chief scientific officer, he will lead Rome’s efforts to discover and develop drugs for new targets found in parts of the human genome previously dismissed as “junk DNA.” Rome is looking beyond the 2% of the genome that codes directly for proteins and focusing on parts of the genome called the repeatome, which is made up of repeating sequences of nucleic acids, called repeats for short.

Virtual Roundtable

ESMO Post Show: Highlights From the Virtual Conference

Cancer experts and pharma execs will break down the headline-making data from ESMO, sharing their insights and analysis around the conference’s most closely watched studies. This discussion will examine how groundbreaking research unveiled over the weekend will change clinical practice and prime drugs for key new indications, and panelists will fill you in on the need-to-know takeaways from oncology’s hottest fields.

Rome believes that drugging the repeatome, which makes up 60% of the genome, could lead to new ways to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases.

RELATED: Rome Therapeutics debuts with $50M and Rosana Kapeller at the helm

“ROME’s mission to explore the uncharted territory of the repeatome and bring forward a new class of medicines resonates with me at my core. This is such an important arena for drug discovery, and it holds great promise for patients suffering with serious debilitating diseases,” Zaller said in a statement. “I believe that by unlocking the repeatome, we will be able to drive hard-to-treat cancers and autoimmune diseases into sustained remission.”

The company’s name is a contracted form of the word “repeatome,” but its co-founders draw comparisons to the Roman empire when they think about sustained remission.

“If you think about Rome, how did they do their job? They didn’t just go in and kill people—they went in, conquered and controlled. We want to conquer and control disease,” Rome co-founder Benjamin Greenbaum, Ph.D., said.

“Our inspiration comes from the way we treat HIV and other chronic diseases,” said Rome CEO Rosana Kapeller, Ph.D. “We can’t cure those diseases, but we have drugs that allow patients to live long and productive lives.”

The company has picked out some targets to pursue in cancer and autoimmune disease, but it isn’t sharing just yet what those targets are. It has a few years of drug discovery ahead of it, identifying and generating small-molecule modulators of its targets and then testing them in lab dishes in animal models.

Suggested Articles

Novartis is forging ahead with the development of spartalizumab in "many, many other indications" despite the setback.

Chi-Med has detailed plans to seek approval from the FDA later this year in part on the strength of data from Chinese phase 3 trial.

Takeda tapped Roche’s Foundation Medicine to develop tissue- and blood-based companion diagnostic tests for its portfolio of lung cancer therapies.