June 29, 2020 | Pharma’s Dirty Secret, And The Synthetic Biology Startup Offering A New Approach


by John Cumbers

Many of today’s most trusted drugs are so notorious for their wide range of potentially serious adverse reactions, they are known in the business as “dirty drugs.” Synthetic biology company Octant Bio has developed a better way to design drugs for the most common and complex diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

This article was originally published by Forbes.com

Many of today’s most trusted drugs are blunt tools. When successful, they bind to a specific target in the body to relieve pain or depression, stop a cancer, lower cholesterol, or suppress a cough. But they don’t stop there. They also bind to many other receptors, causing side effects that can range from a harmless dry mouth to life-threatening reactions.

These multi-receptor drugs are so notorious, they are known informally in the pharmacology business as “dirty drugs.”

Octant Bio recently raised a $30M Series A to do something about this. The Bay Area, CA-based synthetic biology startup is using an approach you may never have heard of, but that you definitely haven’t heard the last of.

Polypharmacology: A new approach

“Polypharmacology isn’t a term we made up,” says Octant co-founder and CEO Sri Kosuri. He says that many of the dirty drugs on which we depend work precisely because they bind to so many different receptors, often different aspects of the condition being treated. Kosuri’s team is leaning into the multi-receptor approach by applying advanced biotechnology in the pursuit of polypharmacology—the design of drugs that act on multiple targets or disease pathways. In doing so, Kosuri believes Octant can find not only drugs without unwanted side effects, but also better candidates for treating highly complex, multi-target diseases like obesity and diabetes.

“The last 30 years have been focused on specificity in the pharmaceutical industry,” says Kosuri. Using technologies like protein structure modeling, gene therapies, and CRISPR, drugs have been designed to hone in on specific targets: one gene responsible for a disease, or one biomarker that differentiates a cancer cell. “There have been a lot of successes,” he explains, “but most of these are in areas like rare disease and cancer, diseases that are genetically distinct in their nature.”