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Flagship startup Cellarity raises $121m for ‘entirely new approach to drug discovery’

The Somerville-based firm has big ambitions for its approach to finding drugs that help make diseased cells healthy.

Cellarity, a startup founded by Flagship Pioneering, occupies two floors of a new lab building at Boynton Yards in Somerville.Cellarity

Flagship Pioneering, the Cambridge life sciences investment firm that builds its own companies, isn’t known for creating startups with meager plans or modest claims. Its most recently-funded venture is no exception. Cellarity, a biotech startup founded by Flagship, announced raising $121 million in financing on Tuesday to “transform the way medicines are created,” according to a press statement.

The vast majority of biotech and pharma companies develop drugs targeted at specific proteins or genes implicated in a disease. While this tactic has worked for some conditions, the cause of many diseases remains elusive. Cellarity is eschewing that reductionist approach of fixating on individual proteins and genes in favor of a more holistic, and more nebulous, strategy to discover drugs that make sick cells well.

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“We are driving an entirely new approach to drug discovery that can be applied to virtually every disease,” Fabrice Chouraqui, chief executive of Cellarity, told the Globe.

Big claims are a common feature of many Flagship-founded startups. In March, the Flagship startup Vesalius Therapeutics launched with $75 million to “revolutionize” how common diseases are understood and treated. In May, Flagship startup ProFound Therapeutics launched with $75 million to capitalize on the alleged discovery of tens of thousands of previously unknown proteins in the human body, which “could provide countless new intervention points across diseases.”

Somerville-based Cellarity, which has now raised $274 million since its inception in 2017, was born from a simple question: what if scientists could design a drug against a cell, rather than a protein? That unconventional way of thinking could be especially useful for diseases whose causes are unknown, Chouraqui said. “The possibilities are immense,” he said.

Key to the company’s approach is a genetic technique called single cell RNA sequencing, which its scientists use to understand the molecular changes that occur when a healthy cell becomes a diseased one. After mapping those many differences, the company then screens through thousands of potential drugs to uncover ones that help a sick cell chart a course towards health.

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Although Cellarity hopes that its strategy could be applied to any cell and any disease, it will initially focus on blood disorders, metabolic disease, and immune-oncology. Chouraqui hopes to grow that list by partnering with large pharma companies in other disease areas.

The company is currently testing its two most advanced drug programs in monkey studies. One of those compounds is for insulin sensitization, which may be useful for pre-diabetes. Another compound is being considered to boost hemoglobin production in people with sickle cell disease.

Chouraqui suggested that the exact diseases that the company ends up testing its drugs on in the clinic may change. “We are able to apply this to different diseases where the [same] cell type is playing an important role,” he said.

The company has about 120 employees — a mix of biologists, chemists, and machine learning experts — across two floors of a new nine story lab building at 101 South St. in Somerville. That building is the first in a new life sciences research complex called Boynton Yards, which is close to the Union Square MBTA Green Line stop.

Cellarity shares the building with three other Flagship startups: the protein design firm Generate Bio, the RNA therapy company Laronde, and gene therapy company Tessera Therapeutics. Chouraqui said that Cellarity has an option to expand into the second Boynton Yards building scheduled to open in 2024.

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Ryan Cross can be reached at ryan.cross@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @RLCscienceboss.