One-Year Old Dracen Pharma Raises $40.5M, Hunts for Office and Lab Space With Plans to Hire


Dracen Pharmaceuticals raised $40.5 million in equity financing from nine unidentified investors.

The company is based on work by Barbara Slusher, professor of neurology, medicine, psychiatry, neuroscience and oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of Johns Hopkins Drug Discovery, and immunologist Jonathan Powell, with the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. Their research was published in August 2016 in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. They altered an experimental drug’s structure to make it more able to move through the blood-brain barrier. This provided ten times better drug delivery to the brain.

The drug was 6-diazo-5-oxo-L-norleucine (DON), which has been used to shrink advanced tumors in clinical trials, but the side effects, particularly to the gastrointestinal system, prevented it from approval.

At the time of publication, Slusher said in a statement, “We wondered whether we could make a safer and more tolerable form of DON by enhancing its brain penetration and limiting its exposure to the rest of the body and, thus, toxicity. We showed that we can modify these drugs to have further specificity to target the brain and limit toxicity to the rest of the body. This strategy can potentially be used to develop tailored drugs for different cancers.”

Dracen Pharmaceuticals licensed the technology from Johns Hopkins University and the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in Prague in January 2018. Slusher and Powell are founders and hold equity in the company, but are not employees. They are, however, advisors.

“This agreement with Dracen Pharmaceuticals is the latest example of the many exciting and impactful developments coming out of Johns Hopkins,” said Neil Veloso, executive director for Technology Transfer at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, in a statement. “This novel technology, coupled with a focused plan and experienced management team, holds the promise of fulfilling our research mission: to bring the benefits of discovery to the world.”

With the funds raised, Dracen plans to hire about 12 staffers and consultants, and is currently hunting for office and laboratory space in Baltimore. The company’s chief executive officer, Thomas Estok, told the Baltimore Business Journal that he hopes to take their lead compound into the clinic by 2019.

Slusher and Powell’s research was funded in part by an award from the Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) Maryland Innovation Initiative and the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Johns Hopkins. It was conducted via a collaboration with the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

Slusher and her group designed and engineered several derivatives of DON, with the goal of making it more lipid soluble, which would help it pass through the blood-brain barrier. Once the modified drugs reach the brain, they are designed to quickly metabolize back to DON.

Their experimental work was very successful in monkeys. They dosed two monkeys with DON and a derivative, 5c. Thirty minutes later they measured the drugs in the animals’ cerebrospinal fluid and circulating plasma. The monkey receiving DON had measured about seven times less drug in its blood than the monkey receiving 5c. The monkey that received 5c had 10 times more DON in the cerebrospinal fluid than the monkey with unaltered DON.

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