Effector Therapeutics snags $45M venture round from A-list backers

Effector Therapeutics has rallied marquee investors for a sizable $45 million Series A financing, determined to use discoveries in protein translation to mine for new cancer drugs.

The San Diego-based startup has become one of the latest new biotech groups to seek small molecule drugs that target molecular processes that affect multiple cancer genes as opposed to earlier drugs that focused on just one oncogene. Its hope is to advance drugs that shrink tumors and overcome rapid resistance cancer cells develop to previous drugs against single oncogenes, Effector CEO and Cofounder Steve Worland told FierceBiotech.

The biotech startup has won support from GlaxoSmithKline's SR One, Novartis Venture Funds, Astellas Venture Management, Abingworth, Osage University Partners, U.S. Venture Partners and Mission Bay Capital. Astellas Pharma, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Novartis ($NVS) are major developers of cancer drugs, yet the venture units of those companies have backed Effector as financial investors like the other VC groups in the syndicate, Worland said.

Worland, the former CEO of Anadys Pharmaceuticals ($ANDS), and his partners incorporated Effector about a year ago after Roche ($RHHBY) acquired Anadys for $230 million in 2011 to gain control of the smaller company's oral drug setrobuvir for hepatitis C virus. Hungry to stay in biotech after the sale of Anadys, Worland went hunting in academia for interesting science and found the basis for Effector in labs at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). And UCSF researchers Kevan Shokat and Davide Ruggero are cofounders of the startup.

The UCSF crew has made discoveries in a long-understood process in cells known as translation or protein synthesis. In cancer cells, translation malfunctions in a way that allows oncogenes to fuel cancer cells. The misfit cells become addicted to the oncogenes. By selectively regulating translation, Effector aims to restore normal protein synthesis and cut off the fuel that keeps cancer cells running. 

"At the most fundamental, I think what's most exciting is a breakthrough recognition that the cellular process that we all learned about in freshman biochemistry for 50 years, that such a fundamental process is selectively regulated and is used by multiple different oncogenes and that they are druggable," Worland said.

"You put that all together and go, oh my goodness, here's a brand new approach that is cutting edge from where oncology treatment is today and will be in 5 to 10 years," the CEO added. "And it's got medicinal chemists salivating over the opportunity."

Biotech vet Carol Gallagher has joined the board of Effector as chairman. Gallagher previously served as CEO of Calistoga Pharmaceuticals, which Gilead Sciences ($GILD) bought in 2011 in a deal worth $600 million.  

Venture investors have recently backed other startups with research methods of shutting down multiple cancer genes with single compounds. For instance, Flagship Ventures and Arch Venture Partners led a $30 million round for the cancer-focused startup Syros Pharmaceuticals in April to explore use of drugs that target "Super Enhancers" that impact genes to shape the identify of cells, including malignant ones.

- here's the release