Born to Be Wild: Relay Therapeutics Launches With $57 Million to Make Movies of Cell Proteins

Published: Sep 15, 2016

Born to Be Wild: Relay Therapeutics Launches with $57 Million to Make Movies of Cell Proteins September 14, 2016
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

Relay Therapeutics officially launched today in Cambridge, Massachusetts with a $57 million Series A financing round led by Third Rock Ventures. It was joined by an affiliate of D.E. Shaw Research, which is led by David Shaw, a billionaire hedge fund manager. The company has been in existence for approximately six months.

Relay will focus on developing drugs based on so-called “protein motion,” also known as protein dynamics. The majority of our knowledge of proteins are based on static X-ray crystallography images. But in reality, proteins are in constant motion, changing shape and interacting with other proteins and enzymes in a nonstop dance. Relay will utilize computational imaging and technology to take three-dimensional “movies” of the proteins in order to better understand their function and look for further drug targets.

“A picture is worth 1,000 words,” said Alexis Borisy, a Third Rock partner who is serving as the interim chief executive officer and executive chairman of Relay. “But a movie is worth thousands of pictures.”

These “movies” are likely to be milliseconds or seconds in length. “Many of the motions that take place in proteins in the body are happening on the millisecond timescale,” Mark Murcko, the company’s chief scientific officer and cofounder, told Xconomy. “We’d like to see and understand the nature of those motions.” The company’s technical founders include Matthew Jacobson, professor and chair of the Pharmaceutical Chemistry Department at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Dorothee Kern, professor at Brandeis University and investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Mark Murcko, who will act as the chief scientific officer, who is a senior lecturer at MIT, and David Shaw, who will be chief scientist.

“Relay’s novel approach enables us to observe large-scale and subtle protein motions, identifying new opportunities for the drug design process,” Murcko said in a statement. “This innovative and integrated approach allows us to pursue novel medicines against a wide array of compelling drug targets that, until now, have been challenging or even inaccessible.”

At least two other private companies, Nimbus Therapeutics and Morphic Therapeutic, are utilizing the same concept of computation modeling of protein motion. Relay is planning to focus a number of different protein types. It hasn’t specified the types, but Borisy indicates that it will be in the areas of cancer, neurobiology, and rare diseases. Morphic, however, is concentrating on a specific group of targets known as integrins.

Relay currently has 25 staffers, but has plans to grow up to 40 in 2017. “We’re taking advantage of cutting edge technology across many disciplines,” Murcko told Xconomy, “but ‘shiny toys’ are less important than having smart people work together.”

Those shiny toys, however, include supercomputers designed by D.E. Shaw Research, nicknamed “Anton.” In 2010, when Shaw told the journal Nature that simulating a single small protein for a millisecond took “Anton” about 100 days. Computing power has presumably increased, and there have been advances in X-ray crystallography, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (a type of MRI).

At this time, Relay plans to focus on cancer drugs with the intention of keeping control of those, while developing partnerships with other companies who are interested in utilizing Relay’s technology platform for other disease areas.

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