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Rome Therapeutics, a biotechnology startup that’s using machine learning (ML) to explore the human genome and develop new treatments for cancer and autoimmune diseases, has launched out of stealth today with $50 million in series A funding from GV, Arch Venture Partners, and Partners Innovation Fund.
Rome was incubated inside GV by CEO and cofounder Rosana Kapeller (M.D., Ph.D.), who has been an entrepreneur in residence at Alphabet’s venture capital arm since 2018. But Rome is just the latest in a batch of biotech companies GV has invested in, with AI and ML a common theme — armed with algorithms, researchers can crunch far bigger datasets than humans alone could achieve.
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Rome is developing novel therapies by investigating genetic material that is generally regarded as “junk DNA,” characterized by repeat sequences that don’t provide instructions for making proteins. This expansive “noncoding” DNA is known as the repeatome, and researchers would historically “mask” these repeats on the assumption that they serve no real purpose. As such, most drug discovery and development programs have targeted the 2% of the human genome that codes for protein.
However, it has become increasingly clear that at least part of the repeatome is integral to how cells function and plays a significant role in human health. These strands of genetic material are important for embryonic development, but they are also called into action during times of stress. And it’s thought they play a role in driving diseases such as cancer — “malignant cells co-opt the repeats to facilitate their own survival and growth,” as the company puts it, which may give cancer cells a “survival advantage.”
This is the foundation on which Rome is now pushing to discover and develop repeatome-based therapeutics.
As part of its efforts, Rome has assembled a team constituting specialists from across the machine learning, oncology, immunology, and virology spheres — including Kapeller, who has a background in molecular and cellular biology, and cofounder Dr. Benjamin Greenbaum, who is a computational biologist and a theoretical physicist. Greenbaum has developed machine learning algorithms, based on public data sets, that “unmask” the repeat sequences in the human genome and visualize the structure of these repeats to learn how and when they activate.
“He has found that certain types of repeats activate in certain types of cancer cells,” Kapeller told VentureBeat. “When they activate, the repeats try to send out an alarm to stir up patients’ immune system. In theory, that should be helpful — the immune system could ride to the rescue and kill the malignancy. However, the cancer cells have developed methods for silencing these alarms and co-opting the repeats for their own purposes.”
Rome hopes to develop medicines that intervene in this process, stripping away the cancer cells’ survival advantage.
“No one has ever developed medicines that target repeats in this way, so it’s an entirely new frontier of science,” Kapeller added.
Rome is still an early-stage startup, and it isn’t yet at the point of deploying therapies for testing in people. The long-term goal is to find new drugs that drive cancer and autoimmune diseases into sustained remission, similar to the way HIV treatments work.
“The antiretroviral medicines available now don’t ‘cure’ patients with HIV — they still have the infection — but [these treatments] are extremely successful at driving the HIV into sustained remission so the patients can live a very long, healthy, productive life without worrying about the disease as long as they are taking their medication,” Kapeller said. “Rome’s goal is to develop therapies that do the same with intractable cancers and autoimmune diseases.”
In the past 18 months, GV has also invested in Viz.ai, which uses AI to detect the early signs of stroke; Relay Therapeutics, which is building a cutting-edge drug discovery engine; and Cala Health, which develops “wearable therapies” to tackle chronic disease. And just last week GV joined a $63 million investment in Accent Therapeutics, which is also developing new therapies for cancer.
Rome is the second biotech company to be incubated at GV, following the launch last year of Verve Therapeutics, which raised $58.5 million in a GV-led series A round of funding to develop gene-editing therapies that reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. GV has also incubated startups from other sectors, including cloud-based contact center Dialpad.