New Flagship Startup Metaphore Mimics Mother Nature for Drug R&D

An owl butterfly is not speedy in flight, but the sight of its wings makes creatures think twice about making it a quick meal. The wing pattern resembles the eye of an owl. This ability to mimic a top predator is an advantage that helps the butterfly survive, says Lovisa Afzelius, co-founder and CEO of biotech startup Metaphore Biotechnologies. The drug discovery research of Metaphore is built around the concept of biomimicry. Compounds as they are found in nature have been sources for many drugs. Metaphore copies from nature, then improves on it to design new drugs with better features. “At Metaphore, we’ve learned to create our own molecular butterfly,” Afzelius said. For the past two years, Metaphore has been quietly developing its technology within Flagship Labs, the startup incubator of venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering. On Tuesday, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company emerged from stealth, revealing a $50 million financing commitment from Flagship. The owl butterfly’s wing pattern is the product of natural selection over the course of millions of years. The Metaphore technology can fast forward drug discovery, bringing a molecule to the optimal state rapidly, said Afzelius, who is also a partner at Flagship. The startup’s platform, called MIMiC, provides insights into molecular interactions. It mimics the pharmacophore, the essential features governing the interactions between natural bioactive molecules. From there, Metaphore evolves the pharmacophore’s function by running experiments. Machine-learning techniques are used to interrogate the data, guiding the work of fine-tuning and optimizing a compound into a better drug. The technology can be used to develop molecules that go after any target, and the technology was initially prototyped across a range of targets, Afzelius said. Going forward, the targets that Metaphore is focused on are those that are most difficult to drug. Without identifying any targets, Afzelius said they are ones that require a drug to have features offering specificity, multi-specificity, or a particular function. The approach can be applied to any therapeutic modality, both small and large molecules. Afzelius said Metaphore will address a target with whichever therapeutic modality is best suited to the biology. While the potential applications of the Metaphore platform are broad, the startup is initially focusing on developing drugs for autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders, and cancer. She said Metaphore already has some preclinical data but declined to elaborate, saying only that the startup is working toward the clinic. “From the beginning, [mimicry] was just an idea that we crafted in Flagship,” Afzelius said. “Now we can showcase that the pharmacophore is actually working within the prototypes that we’ve developed. It’s a good time to launch it now.” Photo by Flickr user Under the same moon… via a Creative Commons license