Ira Mellman never intended to start a company. Preparing to leave Yale University for the University of California, San Francisco, a few years ago, the cell biologist went to Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research just to get the okay for a research agreement with a drug company. But his work on the immune system so intrigued the staff they talked him into starting a company (and staying at Yale) instead.
Today, Branford, CT-based Cellular Genomics holds a unique set of tools for understanding some of the hottest drug targets around: proteins called kinases. These molecules are critical players not only in the immune system but in everything from cell division to sugar metabolism. The promise of drugs that target these proteins was highlighted this summer when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Gleevec, a drug from Novartis that acts on kinases that go awry in leukemia and stomach cancer. But the problem in pinpointing the kinases involved in arthritis, Parkinson’s and other diseases is distinguishing them from the upwards of 500 such proteins in the human body, all chemically similar. What’s more, a kinase causing a problem in one part of the body could be vital elsewhere. That’s why Cellular Genomics is tackling kinases from all angles, says Mellman, now a scientific advisor to the company. “We’re interested in doing whatever needs to get done to evaluate how kinases work.”
Cellular Genomics has exclusively licensed two key technologies. The first, developed by Princeton University chemist Kevan Shokat-now at the University of California, San Francisco-inspired the company to zero in on kinases shortly after its 1998 launch. (The company originally licensed Shokat’s technology to aid Mellman’s immune research but, noting the broader utility of the new tool, relegated that research to a more minor role.) Shokat’s system allows researchers, for the first time, to track an individual kinase, seeing which other proteins it interacts with inside the cell, whether blocking it effectively treats a disease, and if side effects could be a problem. The second core technology, the brainchild of Mellman’s Yale colleague Henrik Dohlman, extends this tracking ability all the way to kinases and other proteins embedded in the membrane that surrounds the cell.
This one-two punch could help Cellular Genomics pinpoint numerous new kinase-based drug targets. But experts say it won’t be easy. “We have been trying to work on [Shokat’s technique] ourselves,” says biologist Tony Hunter of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA. “It’s not trivial, necessarily, to get it to work.” Still, he says, “Most people see this as a major step forward in analyzing kinase function.”
Backed by $26.5 million from health-care venture capital heavyweights like MPM Capital, AGTC Funds and Vector Fund Management, Cellular Genomics thinks it has a shot at turning its kinase-tracking tricks into biotech gold. The company is forging partnerships with drug firms to identify drug targets and test the new medicines its partners develop. Within the next year and a half, though, the company hopes to begin developing its own drugs. As more drug companies home in on kinases as the next big thing, Cellular Genomics could be in the perfect position to help show them the way.