Leaps by Bayer backs a protein engineering startup taking on Aimmune — and Nestlé — in peanut allergy
Little capsules of peanut powder drove Nestlé’s $2.6 billion buyout of Aimmune. Now, with $40 million in new funding, a fledgling biotech is promising to bring a more sophisticated version of that protein therapy that can go much, much further.
Ukko’s goal is two-pronged — with the initial products spanning therapeutic and food — but it’s grounded in the same protein engineering platform, co-founder and CEO Anat Binur told Endpoints News.
Leaps by Bayer is leading the Series B, which Binur says will fund the start of human studies for its immunotherapy for peanut allergy within the next three years and get its gluten product ready for the market, gearing toward people with gluten sensitivity.
“Given Bayer’s footprint across healthcare and agriculture, we got super excited about Ukko, because it really cuts right across those two areas of interest,” said Juergen Eckhardt, who leads the Bayer venture arm.
While the approval of Aimmune’s Palforzia has changed the field, safety remains a big hurdle for people dealing with peanut allergies and their clinicians, according to Binur. The idea, after all, is to expose people to the toxic allergens and desensitize them through repeat reactions.
Rather than taking the whole peanut protein, Ukko crawls through data from patient samples to put together “one of the biggest maps” pinpointing what it is in the allergen that’s triggering the immune reaction. Powered by computational tools, its platform then designs carefully altered proteins that are rid of it but can still educate the immune system into tolerating real peanuts.
Yanay Ofran — Binur’s longtime friend and a computational biology expert at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv — came up with that concept when he was studying how molecules bind or avoid each other.
“Basically allergy begins when a certain class of antibodies, IgE antibodies, specifically recognizes a nook or cranny on the peanut proteins,” the co-founder said. “Our proteins do not have those nooks and crannies that the IgE antibodies recognize. So we make them transparent to the antibodies that cause allergy. Everything else is there.”
The finished product can come in the form of powder, sublingual treatment or an injectable. Ukko’s aim in clinical trials will be to show that when patients consume the product, not only will they not have an allergic reaction, but their threshold to an immune response will go down.
“Therefore you expand patient pool, change patient experience, you have less dropout rates, you can really shift the way this problem is solved,” Binur said.
Peanut (and gluten on the food side) will just be a start. Ukko has its sight set on other food proteins causing allergies and sensitivities and recruited top experts to guide their future pipeline. They are Bernhard Van Lengerich, former CSO of General Mills; Ann Veneman, former US Secretary of Agriculture; Wesley Burks and Edwin Kim of the University of North Carolina; Kari Nadeau at Stanford; Lynda Schneider at Boston Children’s Hospital; and Raanan Shamir of Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel.
Other investors include Continental Grain Company, Skyviews Life Science, PeakBridge Ventures, Fall Line Capital and Blu1877 (Barilla’s venture/innovation arm). Khosla Ventures, Innovation Endeavors, and TIME Ventures, and the investment fund of Marc Benioff had backed Ukko since the Series A.
“Bear in mind that we believe that since our proteins do not cause allergy, we will be able to treat with higher doses and then maybe have stronger effects that may be more durable,” Ofran said. “Even if we are just like other treatments with our efficacy, but we remove the safety challenges, that would be an amazing breakthrough.”