Verastem snags $32M for drugs against cancer stem cells

The young field of cancer stem cells has some new financial firepower behind it. Start-up Verastem has closed a $32 million Series B round of financing with plans to advance its first drug against cancer stem cells into the clinic next year.

The deal comes about a month after former Genzyme chief Henri Termeer joined the start-up's board and less than a year after its founders from MIT and the Boston-area biotech scene unveiled the firm with a $16 million first round. Now the Cambridge, MA-based firm has brought on new investors Advanced Technology Ventures and Astellas Venture Management--the venture arm of the Japan-based drug maker Astellas Pharma--to lead its second-round financing, which also includes previous backers Longwood Founders Fund, Bessemer Venture Partners, Cardinal Partners and MPM Capital.

Cancer stem cells, which are believed to cause tumors to surge back after treatment and spread to other organs in the body, have been discussed as targets for new drugs for years. Verastem has a system for screening compounds with the potential to home in on and destroy cancer stem cells, and it has the backing of biotech veterans and co-founders such as Christoph Westphal, Michelle Dipp and Rich Aldrich-who sold their last company, Sirtris, to GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) for $720 million in 2008. They are now partners at one of Verastem's venture backers, Longwood.

"Targeting cancer stem cells via the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition, or EMT, has the potential to transform the treatment paradigm for certain serious cancers, such as triple negative breast cancer," MIT biology Prof. Robert Weinberg, a Verastem co-founder and top scientific advisor, said.

- here's the company's release