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Warp Drive is on hunt for natural gen-based treatments

Gregory Verdine is founder and CEO of Warp Drive Bio.

Gregory Verdine is founder and CEO of Warp Drive Bio.

In early 2012, Warp Drive Bio raised $125 million, much of it from one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. The selling point was a bold but unproven idea.

The Cambridge startup’s plan was to reinvent the process for discovering naturally derived compounds, with the aim of finding a large number of new compounds across a range of therapeutic areas, including cancer — and in relatively short order — at warp speed, you might say.

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Two years later, “that idea has held up in every significant way,” said founder and chief executive Gregory Verdine.

Dozens of compounds that could eventually become drugs have been discovered, and Warp Drive Bio has a good chance of getting its first products into clinical trials by next year, Verdine said.

Based on that early success, he said, the company expects to rework the arrangement it has with its big-pharma investor, Sanofi-Aventis. Under the original deal, Warp Drive Bio would be sold to Sanofi after five years if it produced a certain number of compounds. But it is now more likely that Warp Drive will remain independent to capitalize on the larger-than-expected opportunity, Verdine said.

The booming IPO market for biotechs is also a factor in the thinking to keep Warp Drive independent, he said.

It would not be Verdine’s first taste of biotech success — far from it. He has founded a half-dozen companies, including Gloucester Pharmaceuticals, Enanta Pharmaceuticals, and Eleven Biotherapeutics.

Researchers have long favored naturally derived drugs because they are more potent, more selective, and have fewer off-target effects.

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But Warp Drive is the first company able to pull Verdine away from Harvard University. He was a longtime professor there until he became chief executive of Warp Drive in July.

“This is the one that could really transform medicine,” Verdine said of the company.

Researchers have long favored naturally derived drugs, he said, because they are more potent, more selective, and have fewer off-target effects.

But starting in the mid-1980s, “people got fed up with the difficulty of discovering them,” he said.

His idea was to create something akin to a search engine for genomes that can reveal hidden natural products based on their distinctive genomic signature. Warp Drive has now built that search engine and uses it to discover all of the genes required to make a natural product.

For instance, the company is finding specific molecules that were made by bacteria as part of a germ warfare strategy against fungi. Those same molecules can be used to treat humans, due to similarities between humans and fungi, Verdine said. Thus, the therapeutic molecules the company is discovering “have billions of years of evolution behind them,” he said.

But Warp Drive Bio is not discovering antibiotics — that is a widespread misperception, he said. The company expects that its first two compounds will most likely be useful for treating cancer.

Verdine became a venture partner at the Boston life sciences venture capital firm Third Rock Ventures in 2009, and brought his idea about natural product discovery to the firm. Third Rock joined Sanofi to invest the $125 million in Warp Drive.

Other people involved in its founding included the Harvard genome-sequencing pioneer George Church and James Wells of the University of California San Francisco.

At Sanofi, the president of global research and development, Elias Zerhouni, was a believer in the Warp Drive vision, Verdine said. Paris-based Sanofi, which acquired Cambridge-based Genzyme in 2011 for $20.1 billion, has more than 5,000 employees in Massachusetts. Warp Drive has 36 and expects to add about 10 more by the end of the year, Verdine said.

Kyle Alspach can be reached at Kyle.Alspach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylealspach and at betaboston.com.
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