Cambridge Massachusetts: Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. co-founder Mark Levin has long been a key figure in the region’s biotech industry. Known for his colourful shirts and even bolder statements, Levin, 57, once predictedMillennium would become a $100 billion (Rs4 trillion) company and revolutionize the way drugs work by unravelling the body’s genetic code.
Though the biotech firm has yet to fulfil that promise, Levin raised impressive sums of money and built the company into one of the area’s most prominent biotech firms as chief executive from 1993 to 2005. Two weeks ago, Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. agreed to buy the company for $8.8 billion, the biggest deal in the local biotech industry.
Next frontier: Mark Levin says Constellation Pharmaceuticals, the start-up he’s now heading, will initially try to develop cancer drugs.
Now Levin, a venture capitalist and Millennium board member, is going public with his next project. He’s interim chief executive for Constellation Pharmaceuticals Inc., a start-up that Levin says will pioneer new drugs by harnessing epigenetics, research into ways genes can be switched on or off through chemicals without altering the underlying DNA sequence.
Levin says Constellation will initially try to develop cancer drugs, but eventually tackle other diseases. “The sky’s the limit here,” said Levin.
Levin’s venture capital fund, Third Rock Ventures Llc. and other investors have committed $32 million to Constellation to start the company, an unusually large sum for a first round of funding.
Constellation isn’t the only company trying to mine epigenetics. Venture capital firms MPM Capital Llp. of Boston and Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers have quietly launched EpiZyme Inc., an epigenetics company focused on drugs for cancer and other diseases. The five-month-oldbiotech firm has been trying to recruit researchers in Massachusetts and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Chief executive Kazumi Shiosaki, an MPM partner who formerly worked at Millennium, could not be reached for comment, and another executive said the firm isn’t ready to talk publicly.
“People think (epigenetics) has potential to have a substantial impact on therapies,” said Terry McGuire, a partner with Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham. But, he cautioned, “it’s relatively early and there is a lot more work that has to be done”.
More established drug companies, such as Novartis AG and AstraZeneca Plc., are also pursuing epigenetics. And two biotech companies that were recently sold for billions of dollars, MGI Pharma Inc. and Pharmion Corp., have both developed epigenetic drugs.
“It’s on the frontier of medical research,” said En Li, who runs Novartis’ 15-person epigenetics programme in Cambridge. “It deserves some attention and some focus.”
While biologists have historically focused more on DNA—the body’s genetic code—scientists are trying to figure out how chemicals regulate which pieces of the code are activated. Much of epigenetics focuses on an enzyme group that control how tightly DNA is coiled around a group of proteins called histones.
Genes can only be activated when key slices of DNA are unwrapped, allowing the data to be accessed to manufacture proteins. If drug companies can control the way DNA is coiled, they can decide which slivers to activate or shut off.
Levin said Constellation has an advantage because it is starting with a significant pool of cash and some of the field’s leading academics researchers. Its founders are three scientists: Harvard University pathologist Yang Shi, New York University biochemist Danny Reinberg, and Rockefeller University biologist David Allis. Two of them, Reinberg and Allis, edited one of the few textbooks focusing on epigenetics.
Constellation plans to concentrate on two enzymes—lysine methyltransferase and lysine demethylase—that Levin says have immense potential for cancer research, but have garnered little attention from drug companies.
But the company will also face challenges. Much about the science is still not fully understood. And Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Rudolf Jaenisch, who has studied epigenetics’ role in cancer for more than a decade, said researchers have tried unsuccessfully before to find drugs to effectively control the mechanisms Constellation is targeting. “It’s really not an easy thing,” Jaenisch said.
Constellation isn’t the only company Third Rock is backing. The venture firm also recently invested in Zafgen Inc., which is trying to find treatments for obesity. The company has raised $23 million.
Levin, though, is playing a greater role in Constellation, which he says could have as great an impact on drug development through epigenetics as Millennium had through genomics. Yet, 15 years after Millennium’s founding, it still hasn’t brought to market a drug developed with its genomics expertise.
Its only drug currently on the market, a cancer therapy called Velcade, was originally developed by a company Millennium bought. Still, Levin says Millennium is testing a number of promising medicines that might someday be used to treat diseases.
“In biotechnology, it takes a long time to find the right drugs,” he said, about 15 years on average.
“And that’s from a fully integrated pharmaceuticals company. When you are building a company from zero, you cannot necessarily expect to develop a drug in 15 years.”
Similarly, Levin acknowledges Constellation won’t cure cancer overnight.
©2008/The Boston Globe