Q&A with: James Peyer, PhD, CEO and CoFounder, Cambrian Biopharma
James Peyer is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Cambrian Biopharma. James was previously Founder and Managing Partner at Apollo Ventures, the first global longevity-focused venture capital firm. He earned his PhD in stem cell biology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (learn more about James).
What is Cambrian all about?
Cambrian is a biotech company that is building a whole bunch of new companies and new drugs. We're developing multiple programs to get into the clinic and treat existing diseases right now that target the damage that builds up in our bodies as we get older—and not just treat people that are already sick, but to prevent them from getting sick in the first place. We think biomedicine is addressing these conditions in fundamentally the wrong way.
Over the next 10 or 15 years, we think we're going to bring the way that we treat diseases of aging truly into the 21st Century by beginning to prevent them the same way that we figured out how to prevent and reverse the pathologies of the big infectious diseases like smallpox, cholera and polio in the 20th Century.
What is new with your approach?
Cambrian is born from a school of science called Geroscience that takes a fundamentally different approach to diseases of aging where instead of trying to understand the disease in its fully developed state, we ask how it got there in the first place and what types of damage build up that differentiate a young, healthy person from an older person that's just at the precipice of getting sick and try to build new tools that can treat the damage that builds up in between.
Tell me about how the company is organized.
We call it a Distributed Development Company, or a DisCo for short. This combines the best pieces of a biotech venture capital firm, a big pharmaceutical company, and a scrappy entrepreneurial academic spin out biotech. From the venture side we create a whole portfolio of shots on goal targeting different, really great ideas but with the freedom to shut down an idea that doesn't measure up before having big costly failures in the clinic. Around the pharmaceutical industry we can hire really the best of the best people in drug development and operations and ensure the quality of our clinical trials, because instead of operating with the shoestring budgets of a tiny biotech, we can build these institutional level capabilities that are supporting lots of small companies. The final piece is that there's nothing that can really replace the entrepreneurial magic of someone who is really attached to an idea.
Cambrian can be kind of a one-stop shop where a lot of the capital fundraising runs through us and then gets distributed into all of these programs. For each of our scientists and R&D operational teams we don't need to spend money for, let's imagine, 20 programs. We can bring capital into all of those 20 programs simultaneously and pitch a bigger tent around this longevity field.
Tell me about the portfolio and some of the companies.
In February 2021 we announced the first of 14 different programs that we have operating under the hood at Cambrian: Sensei Biotherapeutics. Sensei has created a vaccine for cancers that perfectly embodies the two aspects that we look for in every Cambrian company—it targets a biological driver of aging (genetic changes that are occurring as our cells evolve into cancer cells) and can be used in an existing regulatory setup. The platform that the company is building also using viruses to convince the immune system to go attack tumor cells. The platform is built in such a way that we can not only react to these tumor cells, but that we could even vaccinate ourselves prophylactically to prevent tumors from ever reaching the disease state.
The next program to emerge was Vita Therapeutics, which officially debuted in June 2021 with the announcement of a $32 million oversubscribed Series A led by Cambrian. Vita is developing disease-modifying cell engineered treatments beginning with muscular dystrophies. Cell therapies have two great challenges - getting enough of them and differentiating them into the right cell type to make a long-term impact on a patient's disease. By mastering the transition from iPSC to muscle stem cell, Vita can make an unlimited amount of carefully defined muscle stem cells, which has never been possible before.
How much has the company raised?
In the first year and a half after Cambrian was founded, we raised $60 million for our internal programs and an additional $62 million privately for Sensei. Now, Sensei is a public company with (as of September 2021) an approximate market cap of $374 million. Across the Cambrian portfolio we raised over $200 million for our programs while effectively still in stealth mode. We’ve now fully emerged from stealth and have closed a $100 million Series C financing that will support our affiliates and advance our growing pipeline.
What are the three categories Cambrian is exploring, and why are they important?
Cambrian has identified three major categories we’re addressing: first are the things that go wrong inside the cells—DNA that's mutating, telomeres that are shortening, aggregates that are building up, these types of things. Second are things that are going wrong at the whole cell level, which includes cells becoming senescent, the energy systems of the cell breaking down, and large cellular dysfunctions. Third are tissue level dysfunctions like stem cells being exhausted or inflammation just happening constantly, or the architecture of a tissue breaking down little by little as we get older.
Why did you get into this space?
I decided when I was a teenager that I wanted to work on the biology of aging after my grandfather died of cancer. I decided I would figure out a way that people wouldn't have to get cancer anymore. I did a PhD in immunology with a focus on STEM cell biology, and then really started wetting my teeth entrepreneurially when I created the first company builder focused on this longevity field, which was called Apollo Ventures and ran that for about three years before realizing that we were really onto something and could create a really big company around this thesis.