It’s been nearly two decades since Monsanto was in the pharmaceutical business, but that long-ago diversification is still paying off for St. Louis.
The drug responsible for this week’s $150 million investment in Galera Therapeutics, the largest single capital round ever raised by a life-sciences company founded in St. Louis, was discovered in the labs of Monsanto’s old drug subsidiary, G.D. Searle. The scientist behind that discovery, Dennis Riley, is now Galera’s chief scientific officer.
Small-molecule drug chemistry “is one of the unappreciated strengths of St. Louis,” says Al Beardsley, Galera’s chief operating officer. Other promising companies here also rely on scientific talent from Monsanto or Pfizer, which bought the former Searle business.
The class of compounds Riley discovered at Searle had the intriguing ability to mimic the properties of certain enzymes. They can protect healthy cells from the harmful effects of radiation, which is used in cancer treatment.
Kereos, a St. Louis startup developing a nanotechnology treatment for cancer, acquired the rights to Riley’s discovery and hired him to work on it. By 2009, the research was promising enough to consider building a separate company around it.
“We knew this class of molecules could really make a difference in cancer patients’ lives,” recalls Beardsley, who had been chief executive of Kereos. “But we needed to raise the money to take it through the very expensive process of turning those molecules into a drug approved to help those patients.”
Galera’s first office was a conference table at the Center for Emerging Technologies, where Beardsley, Riley and others met to launch the company. When they bought the drug rights, they also bought the table, which eventually moved with them to the Helix Center in Creve Coeur.
With seed money from BioGenerator and the St. Louis Arch Angels, the team kept working on a promising drug known as GC4419. Subsequent funding, from prominent U.S. and European venture capital firms, paid for early trials in patients being treated for head and neck cancer.
Those trials show that the drug can prevent mouth and throat ulcers that are a common side effect of radiation treatments. The sores make some people unable to eat or drink, and they can cause life-saving treatment to be delayed.
The latest $150 million will pay for phase 3 clinical trials which, if they go well, could lead to approval by the Food and Drug Administration in about three years. The FDA has designated GC4419 a breakthrough therapy, which should expedite the approval process.
Galera is no longer based here; the headquarters moved to Malvern, Pa., in 2012 when experienced biotech executive Mel Sorensen was hired as CEO. The Creve Coeur office houses seven employees in Galera’s research division.
BioGenerator President Eric Gulve says St. Louisans shouldn’t get hung up on the headquarters designation. The research office will grow as Galera brings its drug to market, and early investors here will profit if the firm eventually sells to a big drug company or pursues a stock offering.
“We haven’t lost anything,” Gulve explained. “To get venture backing, they needed a stellar CEO. This is the strategy we laid out while sitting at that conference room table, and I think this is a fantastic story for the region.”
He’s right. Together with last week’s $60 million investment in agricultural firm Benson Hill Biosystems, Galera’s ability to raise $150 million should quell any doubt that St. Louis can play in the big leagues of innovation.