At the Forefront of Immunometabolism


By Mary Zajac

Dr. Anjin Xianyu and Dr. Ke “Dave” Xu
Illustration: Ryan Olbrysh

 Dr. Anjin Xianyu (Ph.D. ’20), left, and Dr. Ke “Dave” Xu (Ph.D. ’21)

When Dr. Ke “Dave” Xu (Ph.D. ’21) and Dr. Anjin Xianyu (Ph.D. ’20) met on the first day of orientation at Weill Cornell Medicine Graduate School of Medical Sciences in 2013, neither could have predicted they would form a biotech company together nearly a decade later.

But in 2021, the two scientists founded META Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which is developing treatments for autoimmune diseases by modulating the activities of metabolic enzymes — proteins that break down nutrients — with the help of a proprietary artificial intelligent platform. Located in Shenzhen, China, META has raised $15 million and was named a China-based “Biotechnology Innovation 50” company last year by KPMG.

During Dr. Xu’s first year of graduate work in immunology, he was introduced to the then-new field of immunometabolism during a rotation in the lab of Dr. Ming Li at the Sloan Kettering Institute. Excited and fascinated by the research possibilities, Dr. Xu’s subsequent graduate work focused on modulating immune cell activity through metabolic changes. He found that if he inhibited metabolic pathways in immune cells, he could suppress the overactive immune response, stopping the development of autoimmune disease in preclinical models.

Toward the end of his graduate studies, Dr. Xu shared an idea with Dr. Xianyu, who studied in the graduate school’s physiology, biophysics and systems biology program: to start a company and use Dr. Xu’s research to create drugs to treat autoimmune diseases like systemic lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and Crohn’s disease.

“Anjin was the first person I asked to do this with me,” explains Dr. Xu, “[because] over the years, we built trust.”

Adds Dr. Xianyu: “The first time Ke told me about his project and his discovery, I realized that that was a very, very real and revolutionary opportunity to help patients change their lives.”

The two cite Weill Cornell Medicine as playing an important role in preparing them for creating a startup, from offering courses in entrepreneurship to providing opportunities for networking. Several of META’s employees are fellow graduates. Weill Cornell Medicine, Dr. Xu says, “helped us build a very nice team. [It] is the first place we like to seek talent.”

Dr. Xu and Dr. Xianyu hope to get META’s first small molecule drug into phase 1 clinical trials by the end of 2024. “Since I started undergrad, my goal has been to go into biology or medicine and translate the science into something that can help the patients,” says Dr. Xu.

“I think we can help millions of people,” says Dr. Xianyu. “Maybe more. That is changing the world.”

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