Startup raises $15M to turn an old diabetes drug into a potent cancer killer

Metformin, the long-generic, oft-prescribed diabetes treatment, has for years shown hints of promise as a cancer-fighting agent. But its natural properties put a ceiling on potency, limiting the number of malignancies it can possibly treat.

Enlibrium CEO David Campbell

Now a group of scientists at UCLA have cooked up some metformin-like compounds that might be able to get around those hurdles and starve cancer cells of the energy they need to grow. And Enlibrium, a weeks-old startup, has licensed those assets and raised a $15 million in Series A cash to test out the idea.

Metformin's ubiquity in Type 2 diabetes is the result of its ability to suppress glucose production, and that same mechanism is responsible for its scattered effect on cancer cell metabolism. The problem is that metformin cannot make its way into target cells on its own, requiring active transporters for help. In diabetes, the drug has no trouble getting into the liver, where such transporters are ready and waiting, but most cancers present a tougher target.

Enlibrium's metformin analogs, all in the preclinical stages of development, are engineered to squeeze through cellular walls without external help, the company said, halting the flow of glucose and cutting off cancer's pipeline of energy.

The company recruited Avalon Ventures and TPG Biotech to co-lead its A round, looping in Correlation Ventures and Osage University Partners, as well. With the money, Enlibrium is now working through early-stage studies on its compounds to determine which have the necessary characteristics to warrant full clinical development. If any demonstrate the right combination of safety and stability, the company could be in the clinic with a lead candidate in as few as 18 months, Enlibrium CEO David Campbell said.

To get there, Enlibrium is relying on COI Pharmaceuticals, an Avalon-run biotech incubator that provides no-strings-attached infrastructure for its tenant startups. That means instead of spending time scouting for vice presidents of development or back-office laborers, Enlibrium can focus on its science and building the case for its pipeline, Campbell said.

The company is zeroing in on cancer-related mutations where interrupting cellular metabolism might be most effective, researching the genetic markers that predispose patients to respond to its therapies. That means finding cancer subtypes that "have a deal with the devil," Campbell said, meaning those that have gone all in on energy production and thus left themselves vulnerable to interruptions in the food supply.

"We're coming into this area of metabolism at a time now that we're really going to be able to wield this sword in a very careful and refined fashion," Campbell said. "Metformin is showing the way. It has some limitations, but it certainly has identified what we think is a very important opportunity moving forward."

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