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Betting big on drug discovery, UK’s OMass Therapeutics raises $100m

Betting on a fresh formula for the arduous, expensive and failure-prone field of drug discovery, UK-based OMass Therapeutics on Thursday said it has raised $100
million in series B funding.

Including the latest injection – led by a pack of prominent new investors including the Google Ventures and Sanofi Ventures as well as existing investors such as Syncona and Oxford Science Enterprises – OMass has raised over $150 million since its inception in 2016.

The company is looking to solve a problem that has long flummoxed scientists – how to better match drugs to targets among the thousands of molecules (usually proteins) in the body that are linked to particular diseases, but have proved evasive
to existing therapies.

At the heart of the issue is that drug hunters typically focus solely on the protein target, without accounting for the biological system the protein is part of and interacts with.

“In the performance of a ballet, there is usually more than one person involved. And it’s the interaction between those dancers that actually generates the magic. And that’s true with biology,” OMass Chief Executive Rosamond Deegan said in an

“Proteins don’t sit there on their own. They interact with other molecules within their native ecosystem. So if you measure that protein on its own, you miss a lot of things.”

The other drug discovery approach, she suggested, was akin to sitting at the back of the auditorium, where the performance on stage is somewhat obscured by the audience. “You can just about work out what’s going on but not very well.”

OMass’ technology platform, if successful, will provide an unobstructed, high resolution view of experimental drugs in the natural ecosystem of the target, she said.

To do that, the company relies on a gentler version of mass spectrometry technology, which is traditionally used to identify a chemical by smashing it into pieces and measuring its mass.

OMass’ founder – Oxford University professor Dame Carol Robinson – created the technology, which allows for the interrogation of a protein target and its ecosystem while leaving it relatively intact, said OMass Chairman Edward Hodgkin, a partner at Syncona.

Once a drug is added in the mix, it is possible to see directly what is happening at that target, Deegan said.

As a result, one can identify drugs that successfully bind to targets that others would have rejected because the sensitivity and resolution of their approaches did not allow them to really differentiate whether a drug candidate could work or not, she said. Whether OMass’ wager pays off remains to be seen.

It currently has five drugs in development focused on immunological and rare diseases, all of which are still years away from being ready for human testing.

Deegan declined to disclose the company’s valuation.