June 11, 2015 | By John Carroll : Fierce Biotech
After spending the last four years germinating an idea for a new biotech company with some top scientists, the partners at Polaris have allied with New Enterprise Associates and a trio of biotech investors to launch XTuit, jumping out of stealth mode with a $22 million A round and a new take on fighting cancer and liver disease.
XTuit CEO and Polaris partner Alan Crane says that they were approached by the investigators–a high-profile set involving MIT’s prolific Robert Langer, Mass General’s Rakesh Jain and Salk Professor Ronald Evans–and have since been hatching plans to develop drugs for cancer as well as fibrosis in liver cirrhosis and NASH, one of the hottest fields in biotech.
Peter Blume-Jensen was recruited as CSO to run the R&D ops. XTuit currently has 6 staffers but plans to ramp up now that the funding round is in place. NEA led the round, with some help from the Polaris founders and CTI Life Sciences, Arcus Ventures and Omega Funds.
The focus, says Crane, is the microenvironment centering on the role of stroma, a connective tissue which plays a role in cancer as well as fibrosis.
“We have a lot of agents that work really well in tumor cells and cure animals,” says Crane, but once you move many of those agents into people, they often don’t work very well.
One of the big reasons for that, he says, is explained in the microenvironment. “Many tumors have abnormal levels of stroma,” he adds, and can be hard to treat. But cancers that aren’t associated with abnormal stroma, like testicular cancer, have therapies that offer high cure rates. That was on display as recently as the last ASCO meeting in Chicago, he adds, where stroma was identified as an obstacle for immuno-oncology drugs.
Stroma makes it difficult for drugs to hit their target, adds Crane. The microenvironment also “repels” the immune system, blunting the effectiveness of immunotherapies and making XTuit’s drugs ideal potential candidates for future combination treatments. In liver disease, says Crane, “the disease is the abnormal stroma.”
“We have two lead programs, that normalizes the stroma, brings it back to more normalized state,” says the CEO.
XTuit fits the classic model being used to start many new biotechs. Cutting-edge investors like Polaris specialize in bringing together seasoned scientists like Langer, Jain and Evans to provide the IP to launch a new drug developer. Langer has been a startup machine in his own right, while West Coast-based Evans–who co-founded Ligand Pharmaceuticals, Syndax and X-Ceptor–is also putting his shoulder behind a new stealth biotech in San Diego named Metacrine.
For now, the small crew at XTuit is working in shared lab space at LabCentral near MIT, which bills itself as a launchpad for new biotechs. Crane and Blume-Jensen are looking for bigger quarters to handle the team as they grow. And while both are keeping their cards close to their vests when it comes to prospective partnerships, development timelines and so on, they say they have enough money now to get to a classic proof-of-concept demonstration that they have something worth pursuing.