A new age of “biomimicry” may be at hand in drug discovery.
Flagship Pioneering, the Cambridge venture capital firm that launches biotechs with unique research approaches, said Tuesday it is pumping $50 million into a startup that aims to design new biomolecules that help treat diseases by imitating processes found in nature.
The startup, called Metaphore Biotechnologies, has been working in stealth mode for about two years at Flagship’s labs in Kendall Square. But it will soon be moving into its own offices in Cambridge.
With a staff of about 30 researchers, it’s developing a platform of molecular mimics, called MIMiC, to power experimental treatments for cancers, and autoimmune and metabolic diseases.
Metaphore chief executive Lovisa Afzelius, an origination partner at Flagship, said the company started with “a very big hypothesis.”
Flagship executives asked themselves, “‘What if we could mimic any molecular interaction in a highly programmable way?’” she said. “If we could do so, then we could literally go after more or less any [disease] target, even ones that had previously been perceived as intractable.”
Afzelius, a Swedish-born computational scientist, said her team looked to nature for inspiration. One of nature’s oldest tricks is mimicry, she said, which is to “gain adaptive advantage for an organism by imitating something else.” For example, she cited owl butterflies, which protect themselves through camouflage by imitating owls’ eyes.
Metaphore researchers are fashioning a kind of “molecular butterfly,” Afzelius said. First they’re studying pharmacophores, components that guide molecular interactions between experimental drugs and their targets, she said. Then they’re employing biomimicry to engineer biological responses that can be used against a broad range of diseases.
The company has created multiple prototypes but has yet to identify its first drug candidates or disease targets, Afzelius said. “The beauty of the platform is it can be pointed at any target,” she said.
Like other Flagship-bankrolled startups, Metaphore will be using machine learning and artificial intelligence as tools to accelerate drug discovery by generating massive volumes of experimental data on how small changes affect molecules. Afzelius said the company’s goal is to field medicines, whether pills or biologics, that outperform existing treatments or attack illnesses that have no current treatments.
Flagship, founded in 2000 by entrepreneur Noubar Afeyan, has invested more than $3.3 billion to start and fund more than 100 ventures. Among its highest-profile successes has been Moderna, which used messenger RNA technology to develop one of the first COVID vaccines.
Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com.