In the early 2000’s, Dr. Susan Lindquist envisioned the possibility of harnessing yeast’s potential to tackle some of the world’s most complex neurodegenerative diseases. Through her work directing the Whitehead Institute Biomedical Research at MIT, Sue discovered that yeast can be used to model to the cellular pathologies characteristic of these diseases. These pathologies consist of the abnormal clumping or folding of specific proteins (so-called “protein misfolding”). She was convinced that yeast – a simple unicellular organism – had something to teach us about how neurons get sick and eventually die during human disease resulting from protein misfolding. Why use yeast? Yeast is perhaps the best studied organism from a genetic perspective, and it can be manipulated in ways currently unfathomable in human cells, enabling unparalleled power for biological exploration and drug discovery. Sue became convinced over time that insights from yeast could one-day lead to life-saving human therapies. We, Drs. Vikram Khurana, Chee Yeun Chung, and Daniel Tardiff, were recruited by Sue to help develop this revolutionary idea and begin building the scientific programs that could deliver therapeutic benefits from it.
There were three essential requirements to push the science forward:
- First, we had to establish that key responses to protein-misfolding were conserved across a billion years of evolution from yeast to human neurons;
- Second, we needed to establish that drug-like compounds shown to rescue yeast from the consequences of protein misfolding could also reverse pathology in human neurons;
- Finally, we needed to demonstrate that we could identify the cellular mechanism through which any promising compound works
Exploiting emerging cutting-edge stem-cell technologies, we demonstrated that yeast responses to toxic neurodegenerative proteins were indeed conserved in human neurons derived from patients with neurodegenerative disease. Moreover, chemical compounds discovered in high-throughput screens of the yeast model enabled us to identify compounds that could reverse protein toxicities in patient neurons. Finally, we exploited a unique yeast genetics “toolbox” to identify the mechanism of action of those compounds, enabling the drug discovery process.
And, thus, built upon more than a decade of groundbreaking work by numerous scientists in the Lindquist and collaborating labs at MIT, we developed the yeast-to-stem cell platform and published our findings in back-to-back papers in Science in 2013. This platform would eventually become the foundation of Yumanity Therapeutics.
As the exciting scientific data emerged from our work together during this five-year collaboration at the Whitehead Institute, Sue raised with us the opportunity to start a company in drug discovery for neurodegenerative diseases. We drafted the first plans of this venture with her. And a year later, listening to suggestions from her lab that played with the words “yeast” and “humanity”, Susan finally had the name that captured the vision of the company, from yeast to man … “Yumanity.”
With this proprietary scientific platform in hand, Sue proposed to Drs. Ken Rhodes and Tony Coles that a yeast-to-human drug discovery and development strategy could help fill a critical niche in the neurodegenerative disease field. Building on a wealth of successful industry leadership, Ken converted our fundamental ideas into a fully-fledged and integrated drug discovery and development plan. Tony brought it all together in a visionary financing model to launch Yumanity Therapeutics in December 2014. Spearheaded by Sue’s passion to push the boundaries of scientific excellence and bolstered by our collective resolve to serve patients suffering from devastating neurodegenerative diseases, this team transformed a novel drug discovery idea into a thriving biotech company. It is now our mission, together with a growing team of exceptionally talented colleagues, to carry on Sue’s legacy of exceptional science and ultimately deliver real therapies for the patients and caregivers that need them most.