Clarus and Frazier back a 'backyard' biotech team with $26.5M for epigenetics R&D

The band behind FerroKin BioSciences, a pioneer of the virtual biotech model, has gotten back together to take a stab at epigenetics, raising $26.5 million from some A-list investors to develop new treatments for orphan diseases.

The new company, Imago BioSciences, is working up a preclinical program with the potential to treat some undisclosed blood disorders. Clarus Ventures led the biotech's A round, joined by Frazier Healthcare, Amgen ($AMGN) Ventures and Merck ($MRK) Research Labs Venture Fund.

The San Francisco startup "is a rib out of FerroKin in several senses," CEO Hugh Young Rienhoff said, reuniting him with the team that helped persuade Shire ($SHPG) to spend $325 million on that company back in 2012. This time, the 11-member group is focused on treatments that can alter the patterns of gene expression.

Epigenetics is, broadly, the overarching science that governs heritable genes and how they express themselves. Thanks to a host of cellular parameters, people with the same genotypes can have widely ranging phenotypic traits, thus spurring researchers to investigate the epigenetic roots of disease.

Imago's platform allows the company to tinker with those roots, effectively turning genes on and off to either create new expression patterns or return errant ones to normal, Rienhoff said. The new funding will carry the company into the clinic and through proof-of-principle studies on its two top prospects, he said, keeping under wraps Imago's specific targets and internal timeline.

In its day, FerroKin became something of a poster child for the virtual model of drug development, with a small, spread-out team of investigators steering R&D while relying on vendors for much of the dirty work. Imago is headed down that same path, Rienhoff said, keeping its focus on getting into the clinic and eschewing time-consuming research into basic science.

"A lot of it is about execution," the CEO said of Imago's operating model. "It's not about brainstorming and coming up with completely new ways to skin the cat; it's about skinning the cat in old-fashioned ways, just very efficiently."

And Imago's technology has potential applications beyond hematology, Rienhoff said. The biotech's ability to alter gene expression patterns gives it a possible entré into a whole host of inherited diseases, he said, especially those with monogenetic roots.

But, true to his spartan R&D philosophy, Rienhoff isn't getting caught up in the years-away potential of Imago's assets. The company has plenty of near-term work to fill the hours in the day.

"We keep our heads down--that's part of it," he said. "We're really focused on the program and not so much all the externalities. Our goal is to get into patients and get a signal. Everything else is peripheral."

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