The biotech firm building the drug-hunting factory of the future

The work behind Eikon’s groundbreaking technology has already won a Nobel Prize. Now CEO Roger Perlmutter is on a mission to help the company realise its full potential.

Roger Perlmutter remembers the exact day when he learned about a remarkable new project that was using the century-old technique of fluorescence microscopy to study cellular activity in real-time. It was 2012 and he was visiting the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia to meet with a ground-breaking physicist named Eric Betzig. ‘I thought the work was astonishing. I’d never seen anything like it,’ Roger explains. ‘Virtually everything that we know about the behaviour of cells comes from looking at frozen or fixed samples – static images, basically. This offered the promise of being able to watch living cells as they go about their work.’

 

Although the broader implications were not immediately clear at the time, Roger knew it had enormous potential: ‘When you introduce a novel technology into the study of cells that enables you to make quantitative measurements where previously you had no measurements at all, inevitably, you learn a lot about biology.’

He was right – just two years later, Eric Betzig and William Moerner won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their work. In their award, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the team had ‘ingeniously circumvented’ the presumed limitations of existing light microscopes by figuring out how to turn the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off to yield a hyper-detailed, super high-resolution image. ‘Their ground-breaking work has brought optical microscopy into the nanodimension,’ the Academy said. Or in the words of Eikon Therapeutics, which today is at the forefront of using the technology for drug discovery: ‘We can see what couldn’t be seen before.’

Founded in 2019 by Eric, Robert Tjian, Luke Lavis and Xavier Darzacq, Eikon began as a small-scale start-up run by scientists and researchers. That began to change in 2021 when Roger joined as CEO. Previously head of Research & Development at pharmaceutical behemoth Merck, he had long known the research had profound scientific implications. ‘It has transformed everything,’ he says. ‘Frankly, it’s changed our whole view of biological processes.’ Now he wanted to prove it also had significant commercial applications for drug discovery. ‘That, to me, was the essential piece that I could provide by virtue of the fact that I’d spent so much time in the biopharmaceutical industry,’ he explains. ‘So that was the goal, and within a short time it became clear that super-resolution microscopy could contribute meaning-fully to drug discovery.’ 

He also wanted to make sure everything was in place for the next few years so that the scientists and engineers could focus on their work. ‘Scientists and engineers both benefit from peace and quiet,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of thinking that has to be done here and I was eager to give them sufficient resources so that we wouldn’t have to be going out doing roadshows every two months.’

Private equity was essential for making that possible. But it couldn’t just be any old investors – Eikon needed people who could see the long-term value in what they were doing and would be willing to wait for returns. ‘It takes a long time to discover and develop drugs, typically around 10 to 15 years,’ says Roger. ‘Without patient capital, it’s essentially impossible to do these kinds of novel things.’ The company was soon able to gain that support. ‘Our story is quite compelling. Once we had a chance to explain it, we found a lot of people who were eager to invest,’ he says. He says it was a no-brainer: ‘By successfully integrating robotics, high-performance computing and advanced data analytics, Eikon has built a drug-hunting biofactory of the future.’

One of the many potential real-world uses of Eikon is to improve treatment of certain cancers. For example, breast cancer patients currently take drugs that block all oestrogen, a hormone that is vital for bone mass, metabolic performance and cardio-protection but that also stimulates the growth of specific cancerous cells. By mapping the behaviour and response of individual protein molecules within cells for the first time, the microscopy technology should allow pharmaceutical companies to create a more sophisticated drug that can block the effects of oestrogen more selectively. ‘You can watch all of those signalling processes taking place in real time. It’s quite dramatic.’

But Roger is also keen for sectors well outside of drug discovery to be able to use Eikon’s technology. ‘If you were interested in improving crop yields or pest resistance, you could apply our tools to plant biochemistry.

Almost everything we train our instruments on reveals something unexpected and new.

Why shouldn’t we make it possible for scientists in a variety of disciplines to use these tools? So we are eager to support the creation of user-friendly instruments that can do exactly that.’ He is happy to admit that in the future, the company’s research and instruments will likely be used in ways he cannot even imagine now. Indeed, he says that is part of the beauty and power of Eikon’s work. He gives the example of several large screens outside his office that display the images being generated by their microscopes. ‘More or less every day I can walk out of my office and see something surprising – it’s kind of astonishing that almost everything we train our instruments on reveals something unexpected and new. There’s an awful lot to discover here.’

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