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Pharmaceutical company acquires St. Louis cancer drug startup for $100 million

A laboratory at BioGenerator, the investment arm of BioSTL.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
A laboratory at BioGenerator, the investment arm of BioSTL that has supported Confluence Life Sciences

A pharmaceutical company near Philadelphia has acquired Confluence Life Sciences, a St. Louis-based startup developing drugs to treat cancer, for $100 million. 

Confluence was founded by former Pfizer scientists who spent many years studying the kinase gene family, which play a role in inflammation. Aclaris Therapeutics, which manufactures drugs that address skin disease, wants Confluence's expertise in a molecule called the JAK inhibitor, which is a member of the kinase gene family. 

Targeting the molecule could "have a huge impact on quality of life for patients" with conditions such as atopic psoriasis, which tend to affect children, said Neal Walker, president and chief executive officer of Aclaris Therapeutics.

"You can imagine if a child has eczema at night, can't sleep and is itching all night," Walker said. "That can affect not only the child but also the parents." 
Confluence does research on kinase genes to change how the immune system responds to cancer. 

"We're trying to build up the immune system to recognize the cancer as foreign and kill it," said Joe Monahan, Confluence's chief scientific officer.

He expects the financial backing from Aclaris could help speed up Confluence's cancer drug research. Since Confluence's founding seven years ago, the startup's research efforts were largely funded by BioGenerator, BioSTL's investment arm. The company's 40 employees will continue working at the Cortex Innovation Hub in St. Louis. In the next year, it plans to hire about 30 more employees and build a new lab space that's three times larger than its existing space.  

"[Drug research] is very demanding," Monahan said. "You have to have a laser focus. You have to be consistently pushing forward in the face of many obstacles scientifically as well as financially. The potential you can create something that will change the lives of people for the better makes it exciting. It's what drives folks."

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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