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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 17, 2012

Warp Drive Bio: Best Name or Worst?

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Posted by Derek

There are small drug firms and there are small drug firms - if you know what I mean. Which category is Warp Drive Bio going to fall into?

If you've never heard of them - and that name is rather memorable - then don't worry, they're new. Its founders are big names on the industry/academic drug discovery border: Greg Verdine, Jim Wells, and George Church. Here's the rundown:

Warp Drive Bio is driving the reemergence of natural products in the era of genomics to create breakthrough treatments that make an important difference in the lives of patients. Built upon the belief that nature is the world's most powerful medicinal chemist, Warp Drive Bio is deploying a battery of state-of-the-art technologies to access powerful drugs that are now hidden within microbes. Key to the Warp Drive Bio approach is the company's proprietary "genomic search engine" and customized search queries that enable hidden natural products to be revealed on the basis of their distinctive genomic signature.

Interestingly, they launched with a deal with Sanofi already in place. I've been hearing about cryptic natural products for a while, and while I haven't seen anything that's knocked me over, it's not prima facie a crazy idea. But it is going to be a tricky one to get to work, I'd think. After all, if these natural products were so active and useful, might they not have a bit higher profile, genomically and metabolically? I'm willing to be convinced otherwise by some data; perhaps we'll see some as the Sanofi collaboration goes on. Anyone with more knowledge in this area, please add it in the comments - maybe we can all learn something.

One other question: with Verdine founding another high-profile company, does this say something about how his last one, Aileron, is doing in the "stapled peptide" business? Or not?

Comments (20) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Biological News | Business and Markets


1. LittleGreenPills on January 17, 2012 11:59 AM writes...

I did a postdoc that looked at using hdac and methyl transferase inhibitors to prevent fungi from turning off the production of secondary metabolites. It was very successful, as several new compounds were isolated from well know fungi.

They idea behind this line of research is that organisms do not constantly produce everything they are capable of producing, but that it is regulated based on environmental factors. That does not mean that they are medicinally useful, but if the producing organism finds it useful to regulate their production then the idea that they have some sort of specificity is reasonable.

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2. luysii on January 17, 2012 12:31 PM writes...

How about small peptides made from our genome that have been missed up to now as undiscovered natural products? The RNAs for them are called sprcRNAs (short polycistronic ribosome (associated) coding RNAs). The paper describing them is Cell vol. 147 pp. 789 -802 '11.

Or you can look at

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3. Dr. Manhattan on January 17, 2012 1:31 PM writes...

Interesting in that if you go to their web site, they have absolutely nothing at all about the company. No information on general scientific principles, no management, no advisors, no BOD information...nothing. I guess if you get $125 million you don't need to disclose this information, as who needs start up investors??

There was a small Biotech in Worcester by the name of SelectX which was cloning cryptic pathways from soil DNA into Streptomyces vectors for the purposes of novel antibiotic discovery. Unfortunately they folded a couple of years ago, despite some signs of success. I agree with Derek, this will probably be a very challenging technology to tame to actually find & produce something therapeutically worthwhile. Best of luck to them; it would be nice to see a revival in Natural Product research!

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4. Jean-Luc Picard on January 17, 2012 1:42 PM writes...


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5. anchor on January 17, 2012 2:24 PM writes...

Derek: you ask…..”With Verdine founding another high-profile company, does this say something about how his last one, Aileron, is doing in the "stapled peptide" business? Or not? For many of these guys who have found fame, owning the company is like hen laying an egg. What do they care? Owning another company is just like laying another egg. What do they care? Hope you are satisfied with the answer. Those who have been practicing the art medicinal chemistry in the interface of biology and chemistry know the answers, even before they start a company!

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6. microcyclic on January 17, 2012 4:13 PM writes...

Aileron? Judging from the presentation I saw from their CSO last summer, they've got nothing. Wake me up when the macrocyclic peptide craze is over.

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7. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 17, 2012 8:17 PM writes...

Beam me up, Scotty!

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8. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 17, 2012 8:18 PM writes...

Beam me up, Scotty!

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9. Ricardo Ros on January 18, 2012 2:37 AM writes...

Sugars, macrocycles, small peptides, days and nights of structural elucidation ... here we come!

Sorry, couldn't resists.

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10. JAB on January 18, 2012 9:41 AM writes...

A previous thrust in this direction was Ecopia Biosciences, which built an impressive database of biosynthetic microbial genes. They were pretty good at predicting the structure of the metabolite from the sequence. However, the company found a decent lead and they then hosed their R&D to focus on its clinical development. Then they were bought by Caprion to create Thallion, and the lead ECO-4601 vanished after some phase II trials. What happened to their cryptic gene technology I don't know.

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11. Anon on January 18, 2012 9:43 AM writes...

In my opinion this approach is best suited for antibiotic and antifungal development. As mentioned by littlegreenpills bacteria only produce what they need and when they need it. There have been many examples in the literature that show this phenomenon, Clardy being a major player. However not many bacteria are faced with MRSA on a regular basis so compounds that may be successful against it are not produced. With newer techniques I expect a resurgence in antibacterials, granted that would take a renewed interest/investment from big pharma.

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12. LittleGreenPills on January 18, 2012 10:33 AM writes...

I agree with 11. Natural products will always perform best in the arena of antimicrobials and anticancer, but so do all the other development programs. That will always be the case when there is such a clear phenotypic assay (death). The decline of natural product research has coincided with the rise of mechanistic assays and as such I suspect that they are not well represented in these assays.

It is easy to think that all microbial interactions result in death, but there are many examples of mutualism between microbes and other organisms. For these to be possible they have to interact chemically without killing each other. Studying these interactions is relatively new, and could lead to new noncytotoxic therapeutics.

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13. drug_hunter on January 18, 2012 10:39 AM writes...

Microcyclic, why don't you like macrocyclics like, say, Cyclosporin? Hope it isn't just a case of peptide envy -- always so sad when a middle-aged chemist comes down with this affliction.

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14. MG on January 19, 2012 2:57 AM writes...

Sad enough despite the powerful collaboration with Greg Verdine's Warp Drive Bio, Sanofi had decided to close down its own natural products research group... No one knows how any outcome of the collaboration will be taken further when Sanofi's natural products expertise does not exist anymore. And furthermore: People at Sanofi's NP group are already running away seeking new jobs.

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15. Mr Bill on January 19, 2012 7:08 PM writes...

"Time Warp Drive Bio" more like it.

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16. Anonymous on January 24, 2012 7:02 PM writes...

Warp Drive Failure....

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17. Anonymous on February 1, 2012 9:56 PM writes...

Wonder what the status of the stapled peptides are in clinical trial?

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18. Anonymous on March 7, 2012 6:25 PM writes...

Ecopia, Kosan, Diversa, SelectX...the list goes on...Many unsuccessful efforts were made in this direction but I don't think they had access to such inexpensive sequencing and gene synthesis. The key here is having the ability to manipulate the gene clusters they find bioinformatically and then tailor the cluster accordingly. Most earlier efforts were restricted to passive analysis and a "fingers-crossed" approach to hoping an isolated gene cluster expressed in whatever heterologous host a given company was using. I think if anyone has a prayer of doing this on a large scale, these guys are the ones.

Get the crew of experts in the field on board to guide the research (i.e. Ben Shen, vanderdonk, chris walsh, john clardy, et al.) and it could be a success...but it will take LOTS of time to succeed as proof is in the pudding (post-FDA clearance) for pharma companies. I hope the investors are prepared for the long haul on this one unless they design a licensing model for new structures they find. The real question is, with natural antibiotic resistance elements found in the very same clusters, what's stopping horizontal gene transfer (i.e. Dantas, Sommer's work) of resistance elements from making this a mute point?

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19. milkyjoe on March 25, 2012 10:46 PM writes...

This is already happening. An Australian bio named Phylogica has the US IP rights. They have high-throughput screening of bacterial genome peptide libraries. Presently Phylogica have partners including Pfizer,Roche,Medimmune,Janssen and Cambridge University(UK).
TimeWarpDriveBio is starting late in a space that has already been taken!

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20. Jane Yao on July 18, 2012 2:08 PM writes...

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We ( provide over 12,000 non-commercially available compounds and fractions obtained by column separation of worldwide chemically untapped natural products.


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