Gregory Verdine is an experienced drug hunter and serial entrepreneur, but he’s not above looking to more experienced chemists for help. For his latest venture, that experience comes in the tiny form of fungi. LifeMine Therapeutics, a Cambridge-based company that Verdine founded in 2016, is mining the bounties of fungi in search of new drugs.
On Wednesday, the startup said it raised $175 million in its third financing round, eclipsing the $120 million it raised in two previous rounds. Some of the new funding comes from an investment by the pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, which also stuck a research partnership with the LifeMine to develop three fungus-derived drugs for people. “It is our dream collaboration,” Verdine said.
“Nature has been doing drug discovery for about a billion years,” Verdine said while rattling off commercial drugs that came from fungi: lovastatin, used to lower cholesterol and prevent cardiovascular disease; cyclosporine, used to prevent immune rejection of translated organs; and of course, penicillin, used as an antibiotic.
“The drug came straight out of the fungus and went straight and into the patient,” he said.
But the haphazard manner in which scientists discovered these fungus-derived drugs in the past is “really unsatisfactory,” Verdine said. LifeMine has a systemic approach that begins by collecting wild fungi, sequencing their DNA, and studying what kinds of molecules certain clusters of genes produce.
Verdine said the company’s AI-based software can now scan its digital database of fungal genes and predict what kinds of molecules those will make, and more important, how those molecules will interact with human biology. “We can predict the human target with high certainty,” he said.
The idea hasn’t yet led to a new drug, or even a clinical trial of an experimental one, but Verdine said the recent funding will support the company for about two and a half years and allow it to begin clinical trials for one or two drugs. One of its lead programs is a drug for brain cancer, and the second is a drug an immunosuppressive drug that could be used in multiple autoimmune conditions or for people receiving organ transplants.
Most of LifeMine’s approximately 100 employees are at Cambridge Discovery Park near Alewife station, but the company also has a small lab in Gloucester. It plans to open a lab in Basel, Switzerland, later this year.