In 1928, a Scottish researcher named Alexander Fleming returned from vacation to discover that he had accidentally grown a species of fungus called Penicillium on a petri dish containing bacteria. To Fleming̵7;s surprise, the mushrooms seemed to keep the growth of these bacteria at bay. Further research led him to the discovery of the life-saving antibiotic penicillin, which revolutionized the treatment of infectious diseases.
Almost a century later, Hexagon Bio wants to discover more medicinal uses for fungi (although this time it will be special). On September 15, the company announced that it had raised a $ 47 million Series A round to help it genetically track mushrooms and find new breakthrough drugs. The next penicillin betting company is already waiting to be discovered.
“We are really considering [Hexagon] as the first of a new generation of large computation-driven pharmaceutical companies, ”said Alex Kolicic, co-founder of 8VC, a venture capital firm that has invested in the tour, and a board member of Hexagon Bio. “From day one, I thought they had really strong ambitions.” The A series round was led by The Column Group, and two Sigma Ventures also took part.
The company, based in Menlo Park, was founded in 2017 as a graduate of Stanford University. One of the members of the founding team is Maureen Hillenmeier, former director of Stanford’s Genomes for Natural Products program and now CEO of Hexagon. What makes Hexagon Bio unique, says Hillenmeyer, is the company’s multidisciplinary approach to finding new drug candidates. “We really have world-class experience in both data and biology, which is hard to come by,” she says.
Hexagon Bio uses these disciplines to sequence the genomes of fungi and determine whether they have been altered to protect against disease. The company then examines whether any of the altered genes can be used to treat human disease. This is not a contrived idea. Statins, a group of cholesterol-lowering drugs, were discovered by Japanese researcher Akira Endo in 1976, when he realized that genes in Penicillium citrinum The fungus has allowed it to produce two compounds that can lower cholesterol in humans. Although the discovery was extraordinary, it took Endo several years to scan fungal genomes to find these compounds.
Hexagon Bio wants to speed up the process by using artificial intelligence and gene sequencing as part of its mushroom screening platform. “We could find out just by reading its genome that this fungus creates cholesterol inhibitors,” Hillenmeyer said of Endo’s discovery. Although gene sequencing was a new technology when Endo discovered statins in the 1970s, low cost achievement, but high-quality sequencing and other technological advances mean that Hexagon will be able to detect drugs in a fraction of Endo’s time. “We return to [nature] but by applying AI and data science to it, “says Hillenmeyer.
The new A-Series capital will be used to create its own database of fungal genomes, Hillenmeyer said, and to hire people who can take newly discovered compounds through a clinical pipeline in the next few years. Although Hillenmeyer does not name any of the compounds the company has found so far, she says they are mainly focused on finding new drugs to treat cancer and infectious diseases, including drug-resistant fungi. Once upon a time, Hexagon Bio could even branch off fungi and look for cures in other types of microbes, such as bacteria. But for now, says Hillenmeier. “There are an estimated 5 million species of fungi on the planet, and only 5,000 have been studied to date,” she said. “It will take us a while.”