At 32, Cigall Kadoch is one of biology’s rising stars. An assistant professor of pediatric oncology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Kadoch runs a 24-person laboratory that delves into how altering the chemical packaging surrounding DNA can alter the way genes work.
Now Kadoch, who was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in 2014 and has served as a judge for the list, has notched another big achievement: launching a biotechnology company. This morning, her Foghorn Therapeutics announced that its founding venture firm, Flagship Pioneering, and several private investors have committed $50 million to the company.
“I really hadn’t heard anything quite like this before,” says her co-founder Douglas Cole, a Flagship partner who is also chairing Foghorn’s board. “It struck me that it represented a really new way of thinking about what causes disease in a cell and opened up new ways to think about how to treat serious diseases like cancer.”
Kadoch began her work in the Stanford laboratory of Howard Hughes Medical Investigator Gerald Crabtree, studying the binding material, called chromatin, that is used to package DNA into cells. The DNA in a human cell is a structure of microscopic strings that, laid end-to-end, would be several meters long. But the chromatin packages these strands into bundles that can fit in the nucleus of our cells.
What Kadoch learned was that the chromatin packaging was itself controlled by genes (not that surprising) and that a form of pediatric cancer, synovial sarcoma, was caused by changes in a complex of proteins that regulated chromatin (that was a surprise). An even bigger surprise: changes in that regulatory system of cells appear to be involved in at least 20 other cancers, including common ones like non-small cell lung cancer, and in other ailments, including degenerative diseases of the brain. “What’s been surprising is watching the potential of the discoveries grow,” says Kadoch.
She was introduced to Cole by a mutual friend, and they met at Flagship’s offices in Cambridge, Mass. They hashed out an opportunity. The firm is owned by Flagship, its investors, and Kadoch, as well as her mentor, Gerry Crabtree, and its employees. Its scientific advisors include Charles Sawyers, the pioneering oncologist who helped develop the cancer drugs Gleevec and Xtandi, David Schenkein, the chief executive of Agios Pharmaceuticals, and Crabtree. Kadoch is on the company’s board of directors.
As chief executive, they hired Adrian Gottschalk, who had been running neurodegeneration research at Biogen. Last March he and Kadoch grabbed coffee at Area 4, a hip pizza place near Biogen’s Cambridge offices. A friend who worked at Flagship had told him that he needed to look at this new company focused on chromatin biology. “I remember thinking at the time that this was just foundational biology so central to not only disease state but a healthy state,” he says. “I just felt the science was incredible. Cigall just left a massive impression on me, her energy, her passion.” Her ambitions were big: she told him she wanted to build the Genentech of the east coast, referencing perhaps the most legendary biotech firm. Gottschalk signed on.
The first drugs won’t start human tests for a year or more, but the company has been building out a team of two-dozen employees. Its experimental medicines are in the process of lead optimization, meaning that molecules have been developed but need to be improved. Diseases being targeted: synovial sarcoma, but also prostate cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Further down the road, Crabtree’s work may mean there are implications in autism, schizophrenia, and also some rare neurological diseases.
Foghorn likens its work in chromatin to developing an air traffic control system (it calls it a “gene traffic control” and has trademarked the phrase. Now we’ll see if it can fly.
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