University-Industry Engagement Week

UC Berkeley and Novartis renew partnership focused on ‘undruggable’ diseases as related start-up is unveiled  


By David Schwartz
Published: August 2nd, 2022

The University of California Berkeley and pharma company Novartis have extended their collaboration to develop new therapeutics. The renewal comes after five years of partnering and several groundbreaking discoveries. The combined research team continues pursuing a vast number of disease targets in cancer and other illnesses that have eluded traditional small-molecule compounds and drug discovery strategies.

The research collaboration allows UC Berkeley scientists to work with their peers at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR) to find new cures for debilitating illnesses – with a focus on those that have been the most difficult to engineer drugs to treat.

“One of the biggest challenges facing drug discovery is that the majority of proteins are currently still considered ‘undruggable,’” said UC Berkeley professor Daniel Nomura, director of the Novartis-Berkeley Translational Chemical Biology Institute, where the planned research will be conducted. “Most proteins do not possess well-defined binding pockets or ‘ligandable hotspots’ that can be pharmacologically and functionally targeted for therapeutic benefit. Tackling these undruggable proteins requires the development of innovative technologies for ligand discovery and the discovery of novel therapeutic modalities to functionally manipulate these intractable proteins for therapeutic benefit.”

The science and strategy underpinning the renewed collaboration will attempt to harness covalency, coupled with chemoproteomics technology, to enable the discovery of small-molecule compounds that could ultimately form the basis of proximity-based therapeutics.

“I am thrilled to be able to help build off the momentum gained during the past five years and equally excited to synergize with new colleagues,” said Thomas Maimone, associate professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley, who is part of the research team. “With expanded scientific expertise, increasingly sophisticated chemistries, and new envisioned therapeutic modalities, the next several years will be exhilarating.”

The inaugural research collaboration, the Novartis-Berkeley Center for Chemistry and Proteomics Technologies, led to several patents and multiple advances, including novel recruiters of E3 ubiquitin ligases that can be exploited in the degradation of disease causing proteins; the development of new chemistry that can be used to enhance the scope of covalent chemoproteomic technologies; and the creation of a new therapeutic platform called Deubiquitinase Targeting Chimeras (DUBTACs) for stabilizing the levels of proteins that are aberrantly degraded.

The DUBTAC platform also led to a spinout company, Vicinitas Therapeutics, headed up by Nomura and focused on developing DUBTACs into a unique proximity-based therapeutic modality for treating cancer, genetic disorders, and other indications. In simpler terms, Vicinitas is focused on stabilizing certain proteins, rather than degrading them. According to Nomura, the company’s small molecules “induce the proximity, or vicinity, of two proteins that usually don’t interact in this case to stabilize the levels of aberrantly degraded proteins.” The company plans to targe Cystic Fibrosis initially, with other indications including lung and digestive diseases.

The biotech start-up was revealed in conjunction with the expanded partnership, announcing a $65 million Series A funding round led by Deerfield Management and a16z, with additional backing from Droia Ventures, GV, The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, and the Berkeley Catalyst Fund.. The biotech has exclusively licensed the technology from UC Berkeley and Novartis.

Sources: BusinessWire and Endpoint News

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week