By Malorye A. Branca
October 15, 2002 | New metabolomic-centered drug discovery company Cantata Pharmaceuticals Inc. is launching with key assets from former agricultural biotech Cereon Genomics, which closed its doors in Cambridge, Mass., on June 30.
Cereon was a five-year, $218-million joint venture launched in 1997 by Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. and St. Louis-based Monsanto Company. The company, which was based at Millennium’s offices, aimed to use genomics to improve crops. It mapped some important plant genomes, including geneticists’ favorite plant model, the mustard Arabidopsis thaliana. But agricultural genomics faces many challenges, most notably the “Frankenfood” stigma (no, Count Chocula is not Frankenfood), and despite the scientific progress, the partnership was not extended.
Along with a technology platform, Cantata has inherited about 30 former Cereon employees, including some high-profile brass. The new firm’s chief technology officer is Michael Pavia, former Millennium CTO, who served on Cereon’s oversight board. Mark Trusheim, former co-president of Cereon, is serving as CEO, and Roger Wiegand, Cereon’s former director of genomic technology, is chief scientific officer. “The people who developed the technology are staying on with us,” Pavia says.
Metabolomics is one of the few biotechnology topics generating anything resembling a buzz these days. Its rising profile is due partly to technical advances. “The breakthroughs have been twofold,” says David Grainger at Cambridge University in England. “One advance has been the ability to obtain high-quality data sets from complex mixtures, using mass spectrometry and NMR. The other was the development of orthogonal signal correction, which is a mathematical filter that reduces noise in the data sets.”
Cantata’s technology platform generates metabolic “signatures” of drug efficacy and toxicity. “What’s unique about the technology is the way we use mass spectrometry in combination with bioinformatics,” says Trusheim. “The critical piece is in the analysis of the data coming off the mass spectrometers.” Cantata, also based in Cambridge, Mass., has licensed from Monsanto proprietary algorithms that were developed at Cereon.
Proponents say that establishing metabolic signatures of disease should be quicker and easier than using protein or gene expression. “The problem that limits proteomics and transcriptomics [gene expression analysis] is that gene chips and 2-D gels are not very reproducible, so you need a two- or threefold change for it to be detectable,” says Grainger. “But the physics behind mass spectrometry and NMR are so tight you can detect even two or three percent differences in metabolite levels.”
Cantata is seeking about $12 million in series-A financing and has reached half that sum already. Oxford Biosciences, for which Pavia is a part-time entrepreneur-in-residence, is investing in the startup.