UPDATED: Out to revamp plant-based drug manufacturing, Antheia locks in partnership with synthetic biology giant Ginkgo
With supply chain shortages at the forefront of nearly every business in the world right now, whether it be chicken wings or CAR-T cell therapy, synthetic biology upstart Antheia is looking to aid in the fight. It just announced a deal with a giant in the field to help it along.
Antheia will join forces with Ginkgo Bioworks to beef up its pipeline of active pharmaceutical ingredients and key starting materials, leveraging Ginkgo’s high-throughput enzyme design and screening infrastructure to scale up at higher speed.
Currently, the supply chain for plant-based medicines depends on the long process of sourcing specialty plants. Antheia is focused on a plant-alternative manufacturing process that uses yeast through what it calls whole-cell engineering. The engineering platform would in theory replace the need for complex plant-derived compounds, and use the engineered yeast cells as a mini-factory that would churn out molecules at a commercial scale.
For drugs that rely on plant-based active ingredients, such as the chemotherapy vinblastine, there are fragilities that come with such a reliance. Geopolitical conflict, natural disasters and climate change can often play a role in available supply. A recent example of that, Antheia co-founder and CEO Christina Smolke said, is the wildfires in Australia in 2019 and 2020 that wiped out an entire production source. As climate change continues and weather patterns change, events like these can only happen more often.
“When you look at the conventional approaches we use for manufacturing drugs as well as drug discovery, those approaches in general limit what molecules we’re able to synthesize as well as how efficiently, at what scale, and where we can do that in manufacturing,” Smolke said in an interview with Endpoints News Wednesday. “Innovation in pharma has suffered, and that has led to the limitations in both the development of new drugs, as well as the production of many essential medicines which as of today rely on a fragile supply chain. And what we’ve seen over the last year and a half, two years with the Covid pandemic is that it’s shown us that when the medical supply chains break down, there are very real human costs.”
Ginkgo, whose ambition is to be the “Microsoft of synthetic biology,” has caught the attention of investors, valued at $15 billion as it went public in May via a SPAC merger. The company showcased its manufacturing prowess through perfume and synthetic meat before plunging deep into other sectors, all while building up a comprehensive set of tools to reprogram cells with industrial efficiency.
That hefty platform, Antheia says, will be of great help as it brings its engineered microbes to commercial scale. Ginkgo’s technology and biological codebase can help in the crucial step of strain optimization, ensuring that the production of any given compound is as efficient as possible.
In June, Antheia raised a $73 million Series B round to advance its pipeline. And efficiently scaling has been top of mind as a big challenge.
So far, the focus has been on the R&D side of things, developing the yeast strains, fermentation process and the downstream purification process.
“One important fact is to just really understand what your limitations are going to be at scale, and build a robust scaled-down model so that you’re evaluating your strains and you’re developing that under realistic conditions that are going to be able to scale that to hundreds of thousands of liters,” CSO Christy Hawkins said. “And also looking at the robustness of the strain in your process, and how deviations can cause you to have issues at scale.”
Earlier this week, Ginkgo also announced an mRNA breakthrough with partner Aldevron. The company says it has found a way to boost the manufacturing yield of the vaccinia capping enzyme, also known as VCE, which Aldeveron’s president Tom Foti said is a difficult enzyme to produce.
“We believe this yield breakthrough will accelerate mRNA therapeutic and vaccine development for manufacturing teams around the world,” he said in a press release.
VCE, Ginkgo CEO Jason Kelly said, is seen as a key ingredient for scaling mRNA production. Aldevron has exclusive rights to the manufacturing process, which it says is 10-times more efficient that its previous process.