Behind the Term Sheet: How Kojin Therapeutics is Pioneering a New Way to Fight Cancer Based on Cell State and Ferroptosis Biology

June 9, 2021
North America

If there’s one thing this last year has taught us, it’s that health is a matter of global precedence and that we need to work together to build solutions for global challenges. With global collaborations in health, we can achieve extraordinary feats, as we saw with the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. In this new era of tech-enabled medicine, future solutions and breakthroughs will be driven by the convergence of healthcare, life science and technology. We started Cathay Health because we saw an unmet need to catalyze this kind of innovation in healthcare across borders and bring health solutions to patients worldwide. Especially in the face of aging populations, rising healthcare costs, and an increasing number of patients battling cancer, chronic diseases, and mental illness.

Today, we’re thrilled to announce an exciting milestone — our first investment in Massachusetts-based biopharmaceutical company Kojin Therapeutics. Kojin is a leading developer of novel targeted therapeutics based on cell state and ferroptosis biology that is pioneering a new way to fight cancer. The company’s groundbreaking approach to drug discovery enables a selective and effective method for treating diseases that have historically lacked effective therapies, such as drug-resistant cancers.

By co-leading its $60M Series A, we look forward to working alongside Kojin’s stellar team and lineup of world-leading scientists, clinicians, drug developers and investors including Polaris Partners, Newpath Partners, Leaps by Bayer, Abbvie Inc., Eventide Asset Management, Alexandria, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Binney Street Capital. We believe that Kojin’s differentiated biology has the potential to unlock new possibilities in drug development that would have an enormous impact on hard-to-treat diseases and terminal cancer patients who have run out of options. Here’s why.

First, what is ferroptosis? A new alternative for drug resistant cancers.

Most cancer treatments (e.g., conventional chemotherapies) work by killing cancer cells via a process called apoptosis, a common form of programmed cell death. However, some cancers develop resistance, rendering treatments ineffective over time. This has led to research into alternative, non-apoptotic mechanisms which has recently started to attract widespread attention — one such modality being ferroptosis, or iron-dependent cell death.

In other words — ferroptosis-inducing drugs can be used to kill drug-resistant cancers that no longer respond to treatments, offering significant and impactful clinical benefits for patients with little alternatives.

With the term being coined in 2012, ferroptosis is a relatively new area of cell death and is an under-explored pathway for drug development. However, research has intensified in the past 5 years and the discovery of a regulatory network that can affect ferroptosis and its conserved nature in many tissue types offers vast untapped opportunities across a wide range of therapeutic areas with high unmet needs, including oncology, fibrosis and immune modulation.

Given its novelty, the competitive landscape around ferroptosis remains sparse. One challenge is that in order to safely kill apoptosis-resistant cancer cells and avoid unintended effects, ferroptosis needs to be induced in a highly targeted way in specific tissues under a carefully defined set of conditions. This leaves a big opportunity for those that can scientifically understand the behaviour of cells — and clearly identify the ferroptosis-sensitive state – to pave the way and become market leaders in this pioneering space.


Enter Kojin: developing a new category of life-saving drugs based on cell state biology.

Founded in 2020 by leading scientists Stuart Schreiber, Benjamin Cravatt, Stephanie Dougan and Vasanthi Viswanathan, Kojin discovered that many hard-to-treat cancers are sensitive to perturbations that can induce the ferroptotic cell state. These cancers cover a wide range of tissue origins and are known to be resistant to conventional chemotherapy treatments. Drug development with the ability to kill these cancers addresses urgent needs among physicians and terminal cancer patients who have exhausted their treatment options.

How does it work?

Utilizing a novel non-genetic classification of cell states instead of conventional cell types, Kojin’s platform determines how a cell responds to its environment or how it responds to a specific drug. Leveraging its proprietary molecular fingerprinting machine learning model, the company connects complex cell states to known biochemical processes such as ferroptosis to find specific targets for therapeutic intervention, tailored to each disease and targeting selectively the tissues it affects. Ferroptosis is controlled by distinct druggable pathways in different tissues, so cell death can be induced in a precise and cell-specific manner to maximize drug safety and potency in future clinical trials.

With novel scientific discoveries, comes an impressive scientific team.

Based on research out of Professor Stuart Schreiber’s lab at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Kojin has a strong and well-rounded team with deep expertise and track record in drug R&D from the likes of Vertex, Ariad, Scripps, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Pfizer, Janssen and Biogen. Apart from the stellar management team, the company is supported by world leading scientists and clinicians in oncology, who serve on its scientific advisory board, not to mention some of the top biotech and strategic pharma backers we have the pleasure to join as co-investors.

Parting thoughts: drugging the ferroptosis-sensitive state is just the beginning.

Over the last 15 years, Cathay Capital has been an active investor in the health sector — leveraging its global platform spanning North America, Europe and Asia to invest €496M in 33 startups and established companies (with 7 exits) around the world, including Meinian Onehealth, Echosens, Medifa, Owkin, Savana, Sidecar Health and many more.

At Cathay Health, we look forward to building on this success and bringing in a stellar healthcare investment and expert team as well as resources from the global health ecosystem to support groundbreaking companies like Kojin. While the initial focus is on oncology, Kojin’s approach to cell state and ferroptosis biology has the potential to address multiple indications with the company continuing to accelerate its drug discovery platform and advance a robust pipeline of therapeutics for hard-to-treat cancers. We believe that drugging the ferroptosis-sensitive state is just the beginning and we’re proud to join Kojin on their journey to take on many of the large, unmet medical needs for patients across the world.