Rome snags Merck, Celgene vet Zaller as new CSO

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.

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

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“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.