New York-based Volastra Therapeutics, a start-up targeting cancer through chromosomal instability (CIN), has in-licensed a small molecule from pharma giant Amgen. It’s also garnered $60 million in series A financing led by founding investors Polaris Partners and ARCH Venture Partners, as well as others including Eli Lilly and Co.
CIN doesn’t cause cancer, but Volastra says it’s present in 60-80% of cancers and is often associated with poor survival in people. CIN occurs when genetic material gets split up unequally during mitosis; more chromosomes or chromosome fragments go to one daughter cell, and fewer to the other. Normally, the body eliminates these cells. But cancer cells can overcome the body’s regulation system, and continue to divide and create more cells with the incorrect amount of genetic material. A protein called KIF18A is crucial to allowing this continued division.
“It’s an interesting protein that is really only critical when cancer cells go through cell division, but normal cells can dispense of it quite easily,” says Scott Drutman, Volastra’s chief medical officer. The fact that the protein is only important for cancer cell survival makes it “really attractive” as a therapeutic target.”
Volastra’s newly-licensed compound from Amgen, called sovilnesib, is an oral small molecule inhibitor of KIF18A. Sovilnesib is in phase 1 for use in platinum-resistant high-grade serous ovarian cancer, triple-negative breast cancer as well as other solid tumors with mutations in the TP53 gene, the companies say in a press release. Volastra also has at least one KIF18A inhibitor of its own in the works.
It’s a common occurrence in the pharma world for a big company to snap up a drug from a smaller firm; Volastra’s in-license from Amgen, which carries big name drugs Aimovig and Otezla, turns that model around. As part of the deal, Volastra gets an exclusive worldwide license (with the exception of China) to develop and commercialize the compound. Amgen gets an undisclosed amount of cash and equity up front, in addition to downstream milestones and royalties.
The deal isn’t the first encounter with a big firm for Volastra. In March 2022, it announced a collaboration with Bristol Myers Squibb to work on CIN-targeted medicines. In 2021, it announced it would team up with Microsoft to work on “tools that help detect drivers of cancer metastasis.”