Boehringer Ingelheim enlists a UK startup in a milestone-heavy quest for 'dark antigens'
A year after raising $17.5 million for a platform to search for so-called “dark antigens” lurking in tumors, Enara Bio has nabbed a buyer for at least some of what that platform found.
Enara announced Tuesday a partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim, whereby the German big pharma would develop cancer vaccines and bispecific antibodies targeted at Enara-discovered antigens in lung or GI cancers. Upfront terms weren’t disclosed but Enara will be eligible to earn as much as $960 million.
The deal fits into the biotech’s new strategy of building T-cell receptor therapies around the antigens they discover, while licensing out the antigens to companies interested in bringing forward other technologies to exploit them, CEO Kevin Pojasek said.
“There just remains a lot of antigen real estate to take advantage of,” Pojasek told Endpoints News, leaving plenty of room for a small company to partner. “I’d be surprised if we were a company that had 2 or 3 different therapeutic modalities as a venture-backed biotech, you just don’t really see that. You’ve got to focus.”
The deal will also give Boehringer a growing library of targets on which to unleash the immuno-oncology weapons they’ve been amassing over the last few years. That included backing and then buying the cancer vaccines startup AMAL last year, betting on a modality that has received little Big Pharma love in recent years.
“What really attracted us to Boehringer, they’re very clear on what they focus on and what they don’t, unlike some pharmas who are less clear or maybe go heavy on I/O and will do everything,” Pojasek said. “And they’re very clear on the tumors they target.”
Enara, which launched last year as Ervaxx before shifting focus to TCRs and rebranding, is part of a raft of companies now searching for new tumor proteins to target.
They claim to be the only ones, though, that go after so-called dark antigens — regions of human DNA that don’t code for proteins in healthy cells but which, amid the genetic jostling of cancer, can sometimes be transcribed on tumors. Like other companies, they begin looking for antigens by taking mass spectrometry — essentially a heat map — of a tumor and then using a reference set of human proteins to identify different shades and bumps.
The Enara reference set includes this ‘dark’ set of proteins that other companies don’t have, Pojasek said.
Although the company is amassing libraries of antigens in-house, they’ve in-licensed a lead program from Cardiff University that goes after the protein MR1 in melanoma. The goal is to be in the clinic in 18 to 24 months.