The UK firm OMass Therapeutics has unveiled a €90M (£75.5M) Series B financing to bankroll the development of small molecules against so-called ‘undruggable’ targets, including one that sank Quench Bio last year.
In 2020, Quench Bio captured the imagination of investors with the US firm’s ambition to develop a new class of anti-inflammatory drugs. The startup aimed to block the protein gasdermin D, which is linked to a host of conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Unfortunately, Quench Bio’s dream came to an end last year after the company concluded that the target was undruggable and ceased operations.
Undeterred by Quench’s experience, the UK player OMass Therapeutics raised a €90M Series B round this week to finance its own shot at gasdermin D.
The round proceeds will progress OMass’ pipeline towards phase I testing. The five main programs include a gasdermin D blocker for inflammatory diseases in addition to treatments for the genetic disorder congenital adrenal hyperplasia, inflammatory bowel disease, forms of epilepsy, and lupus.
In traditional drug discovery, researchers often test candidate molecules on proteins in an isolated environment away from the cell. The drawback of this setup is that it doesn’t accurately reflect what goes on in the cell. Alternatively, drugs can be tested on proteins in their natural setting in cells, but the complex protein ecosystem in the cell makes it hard to measure the effects of the drug.
OMass overcomes these challenges by extracting the target protein from the cell along with a few other proteins that normally interact with it. The firm then uses a technique called native mass spectrometry to see how a drug impacts the behavior of the proteins. This approach lets OMass screen the drug in a more natural context while making it easier to measure the drug’s effects compared with traditional whole cell screens.
“Despite the downturn in the public markets, we believe there is significant appetite for private investment in companies with differentiated drug discovery platforms or assets,” said Rosamond Deegan, CEO of OMass.
OMass’ drug discovery technology makes it easier to study large proteins called G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) that are found on the surface of cells, and which are tough to screen in the lab. Additionally, the technique may provide the key to succeeding where Quench Bio failed with gasdermin D. According to Deegan, Quench’s original drug screening methods gave the misleading impression that the firm’s drug blocked gasdermin D directly. This idea was later disproven; Quench’s drug likely acted via an indirect process.
“This highlights the critical advantage and importance of OMass’ technical ability to detect and screen for direct binding and function, rather than relying on screens that risk detection of compounds that act by an indirect mechanism,” added Deegan.
OMass’ Series B financing comes two years after the company closed a €50M Series A round in early 2020. The company isn’t alone in its quest to tackle difficult target proteins; the US player Crinetics is developing a treatment for congenital adrenal hyperplasia in phase I that blocks the same target as OMass. Nonetheless, OMass is confident that its own candidate will stand out by binding to the target for longer than the competition.
Another player to watch in the GPCR arena is Confo Therapeutics, which also aims to improve the drug screening process with these proteins. Last year, the Belgian biotech struck a collaboration with Regeneron to co-develop antibody drugs for undisclosed GPCR targets.
28 April 2022: OMass’ technique corrected to native mass spectrometry
Cover image via Elena Resko