Startup Jnana raises $50M to tackle elusive membrane protein targets

Jnana is led by Polaris managing partner Amir Nashat, far left. (Image: Jnana)

Little biotech startup Jnana Therapeutics has a big plan. It wants to unlock the potential of a massively underexplored class of membrane proteins it calls the cell’s "metabolic gates"—with the help of $50 million in first-round funding.

The Boston-based company says it is focusing on a class of proteins called solute carriers (SLCs), a supergroup with some 400 members arranged across more than 50 families which are involved in transporting substances across cell membranes.

Jnana (meaning "knowledge" in Sanskrit) has launched with backing from Polaris Partners and Avalon Ventures—with buy-ins from Versant Ventures, AbbVie Ventures and Pfizer R&D Innovate—to develop what it says is the first drug discovery platform dedicated to targeting SLCs.

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It’s not in completely uncharted territory, as a handful of the known SLCs have been targeted to treat disease even though many have been identified as being "druggable," says Polaris’ managing partner Amir Nashat, Ph.D., who is serving as CEO of the startup.

Established drugs that target SLCs include a clutch of old diuretics, antidepressants, therapies for gout and the SGLT2 inhibitor class of diabetes which includes Johnson & Johnson’s Invokana (canagliflozin) and Eli Lilly/Boehringer Ingelheim’s Jardiance (empagliflozin), among others.

A review article published a couple of years ago concluded that SLC transporters “represent a plethora of new therapeutic targets for rare diseases, and may be particularly amenable to targeting with small molecules.” That’s the space where Jnana has its ambitions, saying it has a small-molecule platform that allows it to address therapeutic targets across the SLC transporter spectrum.

“SLC transporters provide cells with knowledge about their environment. These proteins are amongst the oldest in biology, and afford avenues to address virtually all major diseases,” said Nashat.

“Our proprietary chemistry and biology platform allows us to systematically advance medicines based on the biology of these ancient information gathering systems,” he added. Jnana is targeting a broad range of indications, including cancer, and in particular is concentrating on immunometabolism, lysosomal function and mucosal defense, which it says provide “important targets for immuno-oncology, inflammatory disorders and neurological diseases.”

Th founding team at the firm includes some industry and scientific heavyweights, including Stuart Schreiber, Ph.D., co-founder of Vertex, Ariad and H3 Biomedicine; and Ramnik Xavier, M.D., chief of Gastroenterology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Other biopharma bigwigs who have come on board include Joanne Kotz, Ph.D., previously director at Broad Institute, who will serve as Jnana’s president; and Joel Barrish, Ph.D., the biotech’s chief scientific officer, who was formerly head of discovery chemistry at Bristol-Myers Squibb.