- Ampersand Biomedicines, a biotechnology startup focusing on what it calls programmable medicines, is emerging from stealth with $50 million in hand from Flagship Pioneering.
- Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., Ampersand plans to use insights generated from computing tools to make medicines that act just at the site of disease and spare healthy tissue. The company only offered sparse details about what it’s working on and little indication of the diseases it will target, however.
- Ampersand’s launch comes at a time when platform companies, particularly those with long development timelines, face more scrutiny from biotech investors than they have in previous years. Some of Flagship’s own startups have been forced to cut research, downsize and even shut their doors.
Drug developers all share the same goal: make a medicine that can help treat a patient’s disease without causing harm.
Yet human biology is maddeningly complex. Drugs designed to solve one problem unwittingly cause another. The many “precision” cancer medicines that have reached market in recent years often come with a lengthy list of side effects, for example.
Ampersand, which formed two years ago and is now headed by former Rubius Therapeutics president Avak Kahvejian, is trying to eliminate the guesswork. The company claims to have come up with what it calls an “address map” that can show where specific proteins are in the body, and then design drugs that get to those areas only.
In doing so, Ampersand hopes to unearth safer medicines — what Kahvejian called “smarter biologics” — for a variety of different diseases.
“It doesn't suffice to know where something is,” Kahvejian said. “You also want to be pretty comprehensive in understanding where it isn't, so that you can drive on-target effects without the on-target, off-tissue toxicity that may come along with it if you haven’t mapped it out that way.”
Ampersand’s goals far outpace what it’s able to show, at least publicly. The company is currently creating “prototypes” for the drugs it eventually will develop, Kahvejian said. In 2023, the company aims to produce preclinical data for those programs as it develops its platform, he added.
Flagship is known for companies in Ampersand’s mold. For more than two decades, it has incubated platform companies with grand ambitions. One of its greatest successes is Moderna, which became one of the sector’s most valuable companies following the development of its COVID-19 vaccine.
But Flagship has seen some of its other companies stumble. In the last couple years, Kaleido Biosciences and Rubius, two previously well-funded drugmakers, revealed plans to dissolve. In September, Vesalius Therapeutics laid off more than 40% of its employees. Other Flagship startups, like Sana Biotechnology and Repertoire Immune Medicines, have also cut staff.
Kahvejian, a 12-year Flagship veteran whose resume includes leadership positions at a handful of other biotechs backed by the venture firm, said unexpected outcomes were “par for the course.”
“We are often saying to ourselves every one of these [teams] has a component of repeatability and maybe a playbook, but they also have a high degree of navigating uncharted waters,” Kahvejian said.