Syros Pharma snags $30M funding deal to target master switches of cancer genes

With licenses to breaking discoveries from labs affiliated with MIT and Harvard, Syros Pharmaceuticals has raised $30 million in a Series A round of financing from top venture firms. And after operating under the radar, the biotech startup has revealed details about its plans to advance new drugs from research of master switches of gene expression in cancer cells.

Watertown, MA-based Syros sprouted from research by MIT biologist Richard Young, who led the discovery of so-called "Super Enhancers," which consist of non-protein encoding regions of DNA that regulate expression of multiple genes and play a role in determining the identity of cells. Young worked with Harvard Medical School investigator Jay Bradner on research, published today in the journal Cell. Super Enhancers go bad in cancer and turn up expression of genes that enable tumors to thrive. And stymieing specific Super Enhancers offers a line of attack against cancer and other diseases.

Flagship Ventures incubated Syros in the Cambridge, MA-based VC firm's VentureLabs, where partners worked with Young, Bradner and fellow scientific cofounder Nathanael Gray of Harvard Medical School on forming the company. Both Flagship and Arch Venture Partners led the Series A round, which included investments from the corporate VC fund of WuXi PharmaTech and private backers. Dr. Nancy Simonian, who was previously the long-time chief medical officer of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, is CEO of the company, which is initially focused on translating the MIT and Harvard research of "Super Enhancers" into small molecules against cancer.

Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp, the MIT biologist who cofounded Biogen Idec ($BIIB), has taken a seat on the Syros board of directors. 

Syros's founders have heaped on more evidence in support of the importance of non-protein encoding regions of the genome. Once called genetic "junk," the non-encoding regions have emerged as major actors in cells, with a growing number of pharma outfits seeing them as golden new targets for drug development. In the case of Super Enhancers in cancer cells, Simonian says, Syros could develop drugs that target areas of the master switches themselves or use them as identifiers for which misfit genes to go after with drugs for cancers in which the genetic drivers are poorly understood.

"We believe that you can turn down expression of key genes specific to Super Enhancers and get selective impact on cancer cells versus normal cells," Simonian told FierceBiotech in an interview. She added: "By going after the switches, you have the potential to have a broader, more sustained impact" on the drivers of disease.

Sustained impact on cancer drivers is important. In treating many tumors, targeted drugs might only curtail cancer growth for a few months, and one of the reasons for the poor outcomes is that tumors develop resistance to those treatments. By homing in on the master switches for multiple cancer-related genes, Simonian says, Syros could develop drugs that attack cancer at further upstream than today's targeted treatments.

While unproven in humans, Syros offers a brand new approach for fighting diseases, Simonian says. The CEO took on the exciting challenge of translating the science into therapies after about a decade at Millennium, where she led development of the company's blockbuster myeloma therapy Velcade. Velcade has helped turn multiple myeloma from a death sentence to an illness that can be managed for more than a decade. At Syros, Simonian says, she wants to take new cancer treatments through development to patients.

- here's the release on the financing
- and the release on the data in Cell