A new biotechnology startup aims to treat cancer and other serious illnesses by stopping cells from making disease-causing proteins, and has raised $75 million from venture investor Apple Tree Partners to fund its research.
Dubbed Initial Therapeutics, the company was founded in 2020 by a venture partner at Apple Tree and three University of California researchers, including Jamie Cate, a structural biologist, chemist and husband to CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna.
Initial is among a growing group of biotech companies that are working on new ways to target problematic proteins with chemical pills. Its approach is built around research done in Cate’s lab at UC Berkeley and focuses on the cell’s protein-making machine — the ribosome.
Rather than take aim at proteins already manufactured by the cell, Initial seeks to prevent their production by the ribosome, selectively gumming up microscopic assembly lines. The company claims this method will allow it to target disease-linked proteins that are unreachable by other types of drugs, and sidestep the onerous process of mapping a protein’s 3D structure.
“Initial's bespoke platform allows us to go into the ribosome, the machinery of mRNA translation, in a selective way that has never before been technically possible,” said Kevan Shokat, an Initial co-founder who is also a professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley and of cellular and molecular pharmacology at UC San Francisco. (Previous research at Shokat’s lab showed a way for drugmakers to go after the cancer gene KRAS, long considered an “undruggable” target.)
Joining Cate and Shokat in founding Initial were Brian Paegel, professor of pharmaceutical sciences, chemistry, and biomedical engineering at UC Irvine, and Spiros Liras, a venture partner at Apple Tree. Liras and Cate were coauthors on two papers, published in 2017 and in 2019, that detail how small molecules could be used to stall protein translation in the ribosome.
In a statement, Liras said that Initial “ grew out of conversations between Jamie, Kevan, Brian, and me about work we had each been doing in these intersecting areas of protein synthesis kinetics, ribosome profiling, rapid chemistry, etc., and how we could collaborate to build something new to expand on the idea of selectively modulating protein translation, which we all saw as potentially transformative.”
That statement also said Initial will focus on cancer and other serious diseases, but did not disclose specific conditions it hopes to target, nor describe any drug candidates.