U of T and Cyclica Launch Startup to Develop Precision Cancer Therapeutics
University of Toronto and the AI drug discovery company Cyclica have launched a biotech startup that will develop targeted therapies for difficult-to-treat cancers.
Perturba Therapeutics was founded by Igor Stagljar, a professor in the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research at U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, in partnership with Cyclica.
“I am very excited about our collaboration with Cyclica, thanks to their powerful AI platform that has transformed research in my laboratory over the past few years,” said Stagljar, who was U of T’s Inventor of the Year in 2015. “Our combined approach allows us to go after some of the most intractable cancers by selecting in silico drug molecules that specifically target oncogenic proteins.”
“It will also accelerate drug development by cutting the time to preclinical testing from several years to months,” said Stagljar, who is also a professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at Temerty Medicine.
The company builds on an earlier collaboration between Stagljar’s lab and Cyclica, which produced two inhibitors of the osimertinib resistant triple mutant EGF receptor for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer, the most common type of lung cancer, which Perturba will initially focus on advancing. Osimertinib is currently the drug of last resort for this type of cancer.
Our approach allows us to go after some of the most intractable cancers by selecting in silico drug molecules that specifically target oncogenic proteins. It will also accelerate drug development by cutting the time to preclinical testing from several years to months.Igor Stagljar, Professor, Donnelly Centre
Perturba will also launch four programs targeting small GTPases, enzymes that are mutated in many cancers, but which have been difficult to target with conventional methods.
“What others view as ‘undruggable,’ we see as potential,” said Naheed Kurji, co-founder, CEO and President of Cyclica, who announced Perturba at the Ontario Bioscience Investment Summit Wednesday.
The partnership brings together Cyclica’s AI drug design technology with two first-in-class live cell-based assays from the Stagljar lab, called MaMTH and SIMPL, for validation of selected compounds.
The Stagljar lab is world renowned for its study of protein-protein interactions (PPIs), and MaMTH and SIMPL were initially developed for mapping human protein networks on a global scale. Understanding how proteins talk to each is important, because when those interactions go awry, it can lead to disease.
Stagljar’s team previously mapped interactions between disease-causing proteins and their partners, revealing potential “weak spots” that can be targeted by small molecule drugs for potential treatments of diseases ranging from cancer to cystic fibrosis.
Read about how MaMTH is helping drug repurposing for cancer.
Read about how SIMPL is helping identify drug targets from COVID-19 to cancer.
Perturba’s compounds work by specifically perturbing oncogenic PPIs in cancer cells, therefore sparing the surrounding healthy tissue from their harmful effects. But the hunt for such drugs has been slow using traditional approaches, often resulting in compounds with off-target effects, meaning they act on unintended proteins as well as their targets, which can have wide side-effects in the body.
Advances in AI have transformed drug discovery thanks to machine learning algorithms that can pick the best candidates, from vast chemical libraries containing billions of molecules, which selectively inhibit disease-causing PPIs. That has opened the door to targeting previously undruggable proteins, which make up the majority of the human proteome.
“Lots of proteins have smooth surfaces with no pockets for drugs to bind to. But using Cyclica’s approach we can screen protein surfaces for wild type and oncogenic versions, and we can then test our molecules very quickly in our live cell-based assays,” said Stagljar.
“Cyclica’s AI-augmented polypharmacology based drug design platform technology, complemented with Professor Stagljar’s empirical live cell assays, allows us to approach targets we could not before,” said Kurji. “We’re so excited to partner with the world-class Stagljar lab in driving forward our shared vision.”
Cyclica will provide initial funding for Perturba and will seek external funding as required.
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