Whether you’re a tech optimist or not, you have to recognize that progress rarely follows a straight line. While the world continues to recover from the shock of semiconductors, we are still struggling to find new drugs to treat immune diseases, and the process is not particularly cheap.
Some hope AI will help, and it probably will — when it comes to biotech, it’s more than just a buzzword. But Boston-based drug discovery startup Pepper Bio loves another term: Transomics. Calling itself “the world’s first transomics company,” it hopes that this approach will bring solutions for those suffering from untreated diseases such as certain types of cancer.
“Today, drug development still requires an average of 10-15 years of R&D with production costs (about $2.5 billion) that have increased significantly over the past decade despite technological advances: it Eroom’s concept of law (Moore’s law spelled backwards),” deep tech VC Florian Denis wrote in a recent Medium post.
While AI can help discover new drugs, “AI analysis is only as good as the data you put into it,” Pepper Bio CEO Jon Hu told me. And transomics is part of that data.
Transomics may be a trendy term, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made us more familiar with some of the layers it covers. “There are four different -omics types we’re working on right now: DNA, RNA, proteomic data and phosphoproteomic data,” said Pepper Bio chief scientist officer Samantha Sale Strasser.
You may recognize the first two as genomics and transcriptomics; as for the last one, phosphoproteomics, he sums it up as “proteins with molecular switches added that turn them on and off.”
More than each layer on its own, however, what really matters in Pepper Bio is getting the whole picture. This is also the reason why it is preferable to talk about transomics rather than part of multi-omics, which it sees as less connected; and why it compares itself to Google Maps. As real-time navigation data is richer and therefore more useful than static maps, Pepper Bio “brings the same kinds of advances in drug discovery – a context of activity routing,” said Sale Strasser.
The road to drug discovery is notoriously difficult to navigate; a study shared by Pepper Bio refers to “an overall drug development failure rate of over 96%, including a 90% failure rate during clinical development.”
If transomics can improve the likelihood of success before the expensive clinical trial phase begins, pharmaceutical giants are likely to be interested – and Pepper Bio is already on their radar.
The biotech startup’s $6.5 million seed round was led by NFX, a VC firm that was already involved in its pre-seed round in 2021 and is also an early backer of Mammoth Biosciences. But it is perhaps equally noteworthy to see that Merck also participated in the round, along with Silverton Partners, Mana Ventures, Tensility Ventures and VSC Ventures.
The participation of the pharmaceutical firm took place through the Merck Digital Sciences Studio, an initiative aimed at helping healthcare startups. bring their innovations to market. This may be just the buffer Pepper Bio needs to still work with other partners without concern on their part.
Merck’s accelerator, Hu explained, “is basically a forum where we have many in-depth discussions with Merck scientists to understand what their main problems are; and in return, they have the ability to see -look at the high financial level, but no details. They don’t get access to the project level, they don’t see the data, they don’t see the topics of the particular projects that we have in other ( drug) developers.
Working with partners is half of what Pepper Bio does; the other half is its own pipeline, focused on oncology. The seed round is intended to help the company grow on both sides, to the point where it can raise additional funding, Hu said.
“In terms of the internal pipeline, we are looking for particular assets that we can reuse. We have already identified several of them; We are in the process of negotiating either a direct acquisition or (…) a option available, so we need to have one of them (to raise a new round). Most of our partnerships are currently very limited in nature: they tend to be pilot projects. Before we raise our next round, we need to have at least one of these converted into a long-term partnership with the wider economy.
In addition to partners in the pharma industry, which it can also support in the search for drugs for inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases, Pepper Bio collaborates with Felsher Lab at Stanford to identify and validate therapeutic targets for lymphatic and liver cancers. But the common thread here is not the organs affected by these cancers; this is their transomics signature.
With poorly targeted drugs, patients “not only have to suffer because of the cancer, but they have to suffer all the side effects of the drug without the benefits.” Better targeted drugs can have higher efficacy with lower toxicity, and this is where Pepper Bio hopes its approach can make a difference. “I think transomics is the last piece of the puzzle that genomics started about 20 years ago,” Hu said.
While there’s no silver bullet to curing cancer, let alone all other untreatable diseases, it’s encouraging to see so many startups trying new approaches — and so much capital flowing into their direction.