Emerging Drug Developer: Ensemble Discovery

Ensemble Discovery targets a new class of therapeutics

Ensemble Discovery was launched four years ago to explore the commercial potential of the scientific advances being made by Harvard's David Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology. Last week, Roche essentially gave the fledgling company a key endorsement, announcing that it was extending a collaboration that uses Ensemble's diagnostic assays in clinical trials to analyze the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptors that are found in cancer tissues.

Ensemble believes it has developed a diagnostic method that will allow Roche to identify the particular subset of cancer patients likely to respond to an experimental or approved cancer drug--such as Herceptin or Erbitux--that targets the EGFR receptor. And that can lead down the path toward more personalized treatments at a time payers are clamoring to gain some assurances that the expensive new wave of cancer drugs will be worth the money being spent on them.

"How can you identify patients who will respond optimally to these drugs?" asks David Livingston, the senior vice president of biology. "We believe that our tests, after the appropriate clinical studies, can be used to make a better selection of patients that will respond."

Ensemble, though, is much more than a diagnostic company. The developer recently selected a lead program of its own that targets the TNF receptor. And company CEO Mike Taylor says that in the coming weeks and months Ensemble will be able to discuss what it has learned that validates their program.

Liu, who still works closely with Ensemble, developed what was ultimately dubbed DNA-Programmed Chemistry, or DPC. That DPC was used to develop synthetic macrocycles, called Ensemblins, which have a range of binding interactions across an array of potential drug targets.

"We have over 100,000 Ensemblins in our DPC-based collection available for evaluation," says Taylor. And more are being developed. "We think you need to include a considerable level of diversity in the library, but we're not wedded to large numbers."

So far, the Cambridge, MA-based biotech has attracted $32 million from a range of investors like Flagship Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, CMEA Ventures, Harris and Harris Group, and Boston University.

"I think the focus of the next financing round will be to drive the TNF program into the clinic," says Lawrence Reid, the chief business officer. Flagship and ARCH, two groups well known for their interest in backing early-stage research ventures, were "appropriate investors to help us invest in Ensemble's platform." Now, he adds, the company can start to appeal to investors with an eye on clinical development work.

Currently, the company has 35 staffers, a figure that Taylor says is likely to grow as Ensemble looks to advance its lead program into the developer's fist clinical study.

"We're in a pretty active period given the success of the company," says Taylor. "We would like to grow significantly."

But there's a lot the company isn't ready to discuss. New collaborations are likely to provide additional revenue for the company to grow on, but don't look for any hints about who may be talking with them about another research deal.

"We have the capability to apply our platform and leverage the progress we've made against a variety of targets and develop programs that would benefit from collaborations  at various stages, without being too explicit about partnering strategies," says Taylor.

Taylor says another venture round to support the TNF program makes sense. And after that, he adds, it's hard to predict exactly what lies ahead.

"The management objective is to drive the therapeutic and diagnostic platform forward,"
says Taylor. "Over the next couple of years, the opportunities will become a lot clearer," whether that involves an IPO, a buyout or just continuing to build the company with a sharp focus on TNF.

Emerging Drug Developer: Ensemble Discovery

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