Big Pharma trio drive cancer metabolism upstart to $18M Series A round

Pfizer ($PFE) has joined with the VC wings of Merck KGaA and Boehringer Ingelheim to funnel $18 million (€15.8 million) into Metabomed. The tumor metabolism upstart has attracted the Big Pharma trio on the potential of its discovery platform to deliver more targeted anticancer drugs by homing in on synthetically lethal gene pairs.

Metabomed CEO Simone Botti

Metabomed, which was co-founded by MS Ventures and still calls the VC shop's Israel BioIncubator home, is based on the work of Eyal Gottlieb, Eytan Ruppin and Tomer Shlomi. In 2011, the three researchers co-authored a paper that used modeling to identify synthetic lethal pairs, combinations of genes that can be manipulated to induce cell death. Notably, the list included 99 pairs that the model suggested could be targeted without harming healthy cells. The work led to the creation of Metabomed, an Israeli biotech that now has the financial means to move the idea toward the clinic.

"We want to be able to show that targeting metabolic weaknesses in a cancer cell is a valuable therapeutic approach," Simone Botti, who is leaving his current role as head of MS Ventures' Israel BioIncubator to be Metabomed CEO, told FierceBiotech. "We're not the only ones doing that, … but we started from scratch with synthetic lethality. I think that this is going to be probably one of the most interesting and informative approaches on how to target metabolic weaknesses in cancer cells."

Agios ($AGIO), Calithera Biosciences ($CALA) and Forma Therapeutics are also working in the field of tumor metabolism.

Metabomed's belief that it can establish itself in the emerging field is given credence by the identities of the investors it has brought on board. And, in turn, these investors have potentially given Metabomed an edge. "When you want to ask questions, you have the accumulated experience of three very large pharma companies," Botti said. "That is a very big plus for a company like Metabomed."

The next step for Metabomed is to validate targets that emerged from the work of its founders, who in 2011 identified potentially synthetic lethal pairs involving tumor suppressor genes. The pairs have been linked to forms of renal cell cancer, paragangliomas and gastrointestinal stromal tumors, giving Metabomed a way to test its approach.

"They provide a very good translational story from the in vitro, in silico approach, all through very predictive animal models and into the clinic," Botti said. "This should allow us to extend this story to other cancers where the loss of these tumor suppressor genes is not necessarily a germline loss."

Armed with the Series A money, Metabomed is advancing multiple programs toward preclinical proof of concept in parallel. "If successful, we would have enough money to prioritize the programs and bring at least one of them to a point where we can be ready to enter the clinic," Botti said.

The work is taking place at MS Ventures' Israel BioIncubator, a home for startups that Botti has overseen since Merck KGaA set it up in 2011. Botti sees the incubator as an "extremely cash efficient" way for young companies to generate data, but at some point Metabomed will outgrow the site. When that happens will depend, in part, on how quickly Metabomed takes on new staff, a question about which Botti is unwilling to commit to hard numbers.

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