After our team sold Intellikine in 2012, Kevan Shokat came to me with an idea for a new company based on some pioneering work that he had done in his academic laboratory at UCSF on small molecule, covalent inhibitor approaches to drugging the KRAS G12C mutant oncoprotein.
Kevan suggested that we name our new company “Araxes Pharma.” The Araxes, or Aras, is a river flowing through Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran, draining the south side of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. The Araxes River forms the international boundary between northwest Iran and Azerbaijan, a place particularly close to home for Kevan, as his father emigrated from Iran. But beyond his cultural origins, Kevan was drawn to “Araxes” because it translates to “A Ras,” or simply “Ras”: the molecular pathway that was the focus of his research at UCSF.
Along the way, we created an affiliated company, Wellspring Biosciences—representing the “headwaters” of innovation—which is currently a subsidiary of Araxes Pharma.
It was during our time at Araxes that we conceived of in-licensing the protein farnesyl transferase inhibitor tipifarnib from Janssen Pharmaceutica NV. At the time, tipifarnib was a Phase 2-ready program that had demonstrated encouraging clinical activity in certain cancer patient populations and that we believed could be further optimized using an appropriate patient selection strategy. Aided by our strong relationship with Janssen’s senior management, they agreed to in-license tipifarnib to us.