Star-studded syndicate pumps $33M into preclinical DNA repair cancer startup


SV Life Sciences has joined with the VC wings of AbbVie ($ABBV) and Merck KGaA to funnel $33.2 million (€29.8 million) into a DNA damage repair (DDR) startup. The money will enable a team with a track record of breaking new ground with PARP inhibitors to go after other, larger classes of enzymes involved in DNA repair.

Artios Pharma, the Cambridge, U.K.-based startup that raised the Series A, has landed the financing on the strength of two programs it has in-licensed from Cancer Research Technology (CRT) and the team it has put in place to advance them toward the clinic.

The science builds on work that has made PARP inhibitors among the most closely-watched classes of drugs in biotech. PARP inhibitors work by stopping poly ADP ribose polymerase (PARP) enzyme from repairing breaks in DNA. With cancer cells replicating faster and, in some cases, relying more on PARP than healthy cells, such inhibition has selectively tackled tumors.

Like PARP players, Artios is going after the enzymes involved in the repair of damaged DNA. Where it differs is in the classes of enzymes it is targeting, a shift in tact Artios CEO Niall Martin sees opening up new ways to kill tumor cells.

"PARP was a low-hanging fruit," Martin told FierceBiotech. “There are a lot larger enzyme classes such as polymerases and endonucleases and helicases that take up the bulk of the work within the DNA repair area. Those classes really aren't being touched.”

Now, with advances in assays and cell-based technologies, Martin thinks the DDR field has reached the point at which it can start to tackle other classes of enzymes. CRT and the network of DNA repair scientists it funds have seized upon these advances, resulting in the programs licensed by Artios. These programs, including lead candidate Poly-theta, have advanced to chemistry and optimization, setting Artios up to enter the clinic in approximately three years and perhaps have early POC data within four years.

“[Poly-theta] has a conceptual synthetic lethality idea to it, so when you inhibit it in certain backgrounds you will selectively kill tumor cells. There's a nice process by which we can identify patients at the other end,” Martin said. "It's a really nice starting point for Artios, in terms of novelty of enzyme, in terms of being in a different class and also holding true to the power of DNA repair, which is this idea that you can selectively kill tumor cells if you get the right genetic background."

This idea has dominated Martin’s career. As director of drug discovery at KuDOS Pharmaceuticals, Martin was central to the identification of the PARP inhibitor olaparib, which attracted a $210 million takeover by AstraZeneca ($AZN) and became the now-approved Lynparza. After KuDOS, Martin cofounded Mission Therapeutics, another DNA repair biotech raised that £60 million in February. With Mission veering away from his area of expertise around the time of that round, Martin moved on, resulting in him landing at Artios.

Martin is joined at Artios by Peter Harris, who, in his capacity of KuDOS CMO, ran the first clinical trials of PARP inhibitors in BRCA patients. Nick Staples and Harry Finch, respectively veterans of the British biopharma business development and medicinal chemistry scenes, are also on board.

The plan is to make a few more hires, while also leaning on CRT for drug discovery support. In the near-term, CRT and its network of DNA repair researchers will be Artios’ main source of programs. But Martin wants to be more than an extension of CRT. Projects from researchers in the U.S. and Europe are on his radar. And, by reaching deeper back into academia than Big Pharma typically dares, Martin thinks Artios can hoover up programs that will drive it toward its ultimate goal.

“We want to be the best DDR company in the world,” Martin said. “AZ might take exception to that.”