BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON – The scientists behind KuDOS Pharmaceuticals Ltd., which was sold to London-based AstraZeneca plc in December 2005 for £121.5 million (then US$210 million), have left the company to form another start-up, Mission Therapeutics Ltd.

As the latest spinout by the charity Cancer Research UK, Mission has raised £6 million (US$9.8 million) in its first round to fund the development of small molecules for regulating enzymes in ubiquitin pathways that control cellular response to DNA damage.

Niall Martin, one of the founding scientists, told BioWorld International that while ubiquitin pathways are exploited by drugs in development and by Millennium/Takeda's marketed drug Velcade (bortezomib), understanding of the processes by which ubiquitin tags proteins for destruction by the cellular recycling machinery has now reached new levels.

"Basically we are going to align two things: the process of ubiquitination, and control over protein and cell function and DNA damage response," Martin said. "This will involve a new area of enzymology as far as ubiquitin pathways are concerned, and is a very focussed area of cell biology."

Funding for the Cambridge, UK-based company has come from a syndicate led by Sofinova Partners, with Imperial Innovations, SR One and the Roche Venture Fund.

Martin said the research, "is nowhere near the clinic," but the funding will enable the company to identify small-molecule hits for a couple of specific targets and take them through preclinical evaluation over the next three to five years. While having the potential to be effective by themselves, those drugs could also improve the effectiveness of radiotherapy and certain chemotherapies.

The science behind Mission comes from the lab of Stephen Jackson at Cambridge University's Gurdon Institute. Jackson also provided the scientific inspiration for KuDOS, a specialist in PARP (polyADP ribose polymerase) inhibitors, which he founded in 1997.

Martin noted that Mission's proposed "synthetic lethality" approach of selectively targeting ubiquitin-driven processes in cancer cells to kill the cells has been clinically proven by PARP inhibitors developed by KuDOS. However, he said, Mission is not KuDOS Mark II, but has its own distinctive technology.

That said, Mission certainly has a KuDOS-like look to the staff roster, with Martin and Jackson being joined by two other ex-KuDOS researchers, Xavier Jacq and Keith Menear, along with several other former KuDOS employees.

KuDOS raised a total of £42.5 million between its formation in 1997 and the sale to AstraZeneca in 2005, at which point it had three products in early stage clinical trials. None of the backers of Mission had a stake in KuDOS, but Martin said, "Our investors obviously like the background story." While KuDOS commanded a large sum for its early stage portfolio, Martin said, "I can't say if our investors are looking to replicate that model."

While most of Jackson's research has been funded by Cancer Research UK, he has also had grants from the European Research Council and the European Union's Framework Research program. Keith Blundy, CEO of Cancer Research Technology Ltd., the technology transfer arm of Cancer Research UK, will be a director of Mission.

This is the second investment by Imperial Innovations to be announced recently, and the first time that the firm, which is the quoted technology transfer arm of Imperial College London, has put money into the formation of a start-up from another university.

In December 2010 Imperial Innovations raised £140 million in a placment on the Alternative Investment Market in London, enabling it to invest more under its agreement with Imperial College, and to put money into companies founded by, or based on, technology from Oxford and Cambridge universities and University College London (UCL). Last week, the company announced a £5 million investment on Autifony Ltd., a spinout from GlaxoSmithKline plc, set up to develop drugs for treating hearing loss and tinnitus, in which UCL also has a stake.