Casma Therapeutics Launches with $58.5 Million
Casma Therapeutics, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, closed on a Series A round totaling $58.5 million. The company was solely funded by Third Rock Ventures.
The company will focus on stimulating autophagy to stop or reverse rare genetic diseases and other illnesses, including neurodegeneration. Autophagy is a natural process, where extra or abnormal proteins are broken down by the cells. Other materials are also broken down, including organelles like mitochondria, viruses and other pathogens.
The materials are then recycled as a source of energy or as materials for new structures. If autophagy is functioning abnormally, the materials accumulate, causing a cascade of potential problems related to numerous illnesses.
The company’s focus is built on the work of Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Institute of Innovative Research cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2016. Ohsumi is not one of the company’s founders, but four other experts in autophagy are. They are Beth Levine, director of the Center for Autophagy Research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; Andrea Ballabio, founder and director of the Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine of Pozzuoli; James Hurley, Judy C. Webb Chair and professor of biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology of the University of California Berkeley; and Herbert Virgin, the current chief scientific officer and executive vice president for research of Vir Biotechnology.
The company’s chief executive officer is Keith Dionne, a serial entrepreneur. Leon Murphy, most recently at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, is Casma’s senior vice president, biology. Frank Gentile is the interim chief operating officer. Bob Tepper is the interim chief scientific officer. He is the co-founder of Third Rock Ventures and previous president of R&D at Millennium Pharmaceuticals. Cary Pfeffer is the interim chief business officer, a partner at Third Rock.
Xconomy wrote, “Casma plans to use small molecule drugs to induce autophagy in situations where the process is either slowed down because of disease, or needs to speed up to deal with the buildup of a toxic substance. The goal: stop, or even reverse the course of these diseases, though Casma is a few years from human testing and will have to prove it can interfere with this cellular process without causing other problems. ‘We think we’re working on a fundamentally safe pathway,’ Dionne told Xconomy. ‘We just have to induce it in the correct way.’”
Dionne joined Third Rock Ventures as entrepreneur-in-residence in 2011. Prior to that he led Alantos Pharmaceuticals and Surface Logix, which were both sold. Prior to Casma, he was chief executive officer of Constellation Pharmaceuticals, which was formed by Third Rock in 2008. Dionne took over the job as chief executive in 2012, only two months after it had signed a broad alliance with Genentech that included a buyout option. That deal faded in 2015, with Dionne at the time saying he regretted that the deal with Genentech had ever been signed, because it probably prevented Constellation from launching an initial public offering.
Dionne left Constellation in 2016. The company is still privately held. Since then, Dionne has been incubating Casma. He’s excited to be making the decisions from the beginning, rather than taking over after many critical decisions have been made. He told Xconomy, “I wanted to do this from the beginning, when you really have the chance to mold the company from the very start.” His plan to do that “just took a hiatus during Constellation.”