• Otávio Santiago

NFX-backed Pepper Bio Emerges from stealth with tools to hone in on complex diseases

There’s a clear pain point when it comes to drug discovery: Depending on which study you cite, creating an approved drug costs anywhere from $985 million to $2.6 billion. And R&D returns have rebounded to only about 2.5% in 2020, up from a low of 1.6% in 2019. Not to mention the fact that drugs that fail in clinical trials don’t actually help people who need new treatments.

With a problem like that, there’s little surprise that we’ve seen countless startups entering the drug development space, each looking to carve out their own niche. That might be AI-based drug discovery, advanced proteomics (the study of proteins and their interactions) or, for one newly launched company, layers upon layers of biological data.

On Thursday, Pepper Bio, a seed-stage company based in Boston, emerged from stealth. Pepper Bio has been building a “computational platform,” to use co-founder and chief scientific officer Samantha Dale Strasser’s words, that the company believes can aid in drug discovery.

Pepper Bio has been working with several layers of biological data. That includes genetic data, proteomics, transcriptomics (the study of RNAs, coding or non-coding, that exist in a cell) and phosphoproteomics — which is when a phosphate group is added to a protein and thereby changes its function.

To break that down further: Think of the genetics piece as a roadmap for the body’s proteins. Think of proteomics as the study of how those roads (proteins) interact and intersect with one another. Phosphoproteomics is the study of phosphorylation of proteins — essentially, a process by which the body adds a chemical tag to proteins and alters their function. Think of those as cars on the road. Transcriptomics is just another layer of traffic data that changes in real time.

Taken together, Pepper Bio describes itself as a “Waze for drug discovery” because its developing computational platform is capable of extracting these layers of information from experimental data.

“The idea behind having global causal and functional data and analysis is that we’re much more equipped to handle very complex diseases,” says Jon Hu, CEO and co-founder of Pepper Bio.

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