Whitehead Faculty launch drug company to target cancer stem cells

Whitehead Institute Members Piyush Gupta and Robert Weinberg are among the founders of Verastem Inc., a new biopharmaceutical company focused on developing drugs that destroy a small population of cells—so-called cancer stem cells—capable of reseeding malignant tumors at both primary and distant sites in the body.

Verastem logo

Verastem, Inc. logo. Verastem is a private biopharmaceutical company based in Boston, MA.

Cancerous tumors (including those in the breast, prostate, colon, and lungs) appear to harbor a group of cells with the unique ability to regenerate cancers. In addition to promoting tumor growth, these cancer stem cells are largely resistant to current chemotherapeutics, which explains in part why tumors shrunk during standard treatment often reappear later. In theory, treatment outcomes might improve if one could find chemicals that selectively kill cancer stem cells.

In August 2009, Gupta, leveraging a discovery made in Weinberg’s lab, did just that, identifying a chemical called salinomycin capable of killing cancer stem cells. Compared with paclitaxel, a common chemotherapeutic used to treat breast cancer, salinomycin reduces the number of cancer stem cells by more than 100-fold.

To assess the viability of salinomycin and other compounds as therapeutic candidates, and ultimately to move their studies toward clinical trials, Gupta and Weinberg are now serving on Verastem’s scientific advisory board.