Nested Therapeutics launched Thursday with $125 million to develop drugs that target cancers sharing similar kinds of genetic mutations, regardless of where in the body the cancer arises.
The Cambridge startup is the latest addition to the burgeoning field of precision oncology, and is led by veterans from Agios Pharmaceuticals and Blueprint medicines, Cambridge firms that have commercialized their own precision cancer drugs.
“We thought there was a still lot to do in tumor genetics, but many companies were focused on the same targets,” said Carlo Rizzuto, a managing director at Versant Ventures, a life science venture capital firm that founded Nested in 2021.
Scientists have recorded thousands of genetic mutations in tumors, each a potential clue about what causes cancer to form. Some are common enough to make them obvious take-out targets for drug developers. But it’s often hard for researchers to discern the cancer-causing mutations from the red herrings. Even if the culprits are identified, many of them would be too rare for a drug company to focus on.
Nested was formed to solve both of those problems.
Klaus Hoeflich, the company’s cofounder and chief scientific officer, came up with the idea to take all of the mutations that are often overlooked in the 2D code of genetic databases and map them onto the 3D structures of human proteins. Although these mutations might not sit next to each other in the DNA code, they are sometimes clustered — or nested — together on a specific part of a protein, a concept reflected in the startup’s name.
Those clusters are a clue that such mutations might be important for driving the development of cancer. Crucially, they sometimes form new structures or pockets on a protein, Hoeflich said, giving drug designers a foothold for making a single drug that works against the whole collection of mutations.
“We thought it was a fantastic idea and wanted to see it validated,” Rizzuto said.
Nested already has four drug programs in the works, although it is not sharing specifics about the kinds of genetic mutations or cancers that it will initially concentrate on.
“The challenge for us is to figure out where we want to focus first, so that we can get to rapid clinical proof of concept and ultimately rapid path to market,” said Nested chief executive Darrin Miles.
Miles was most recently chief commercial officer of Agios, which sold its cancer drug business to Sevier Pharmaceuticals in 2021. Before that, he led US commercialization of several drugs at Genentech, including the breast cancer therapy Herceptin. Hoeflich was most recently senior vice president of biology at Blueprint Medicines, which is developing precision cancer medicines.
Nested was initially funded with $35 million from Versant, and recently added a $90 million series A financing led by the life sciences investment division of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. The money comes at a time when some biotech industry experts worry that investments in startups could stall.
“Obviously, everyone here at Versant is being more deliberate and thoughtful, really making sure our companies are well capitalized through meaningful value inflection points,” Rizzuto said.
Miles said that Nested’s funding will help them get their first two programs into clinical trials before 2025, and generate at least some clinical data on the first program. The company is approaching 40 people today, and Miles said he plans on keeping the team compact. The firm recently moved into new labs and offices near Harvard Square.
To jumpstart the company’s progress, it brought in early-stage drug projects from two academic cofounders: Kevan Shokat, a chemist at University of California San Francisco, and Arvin Dar, a biologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Drugs based on their work, and Nested mutation mapping technique, are the company’s two lead programs.
Three of the six researchers on Nested’s scientific advisory board are based in the Boston region: Cigall Kadoch, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Angela Koehler of MIT, and Dr. Ryan Corcoran from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. All three have cofounded their own cancer-focused biotech firms.