Say goodbye to plants: Synbio player Antheia earns new backers in quest to redesign flora-derived medicine manufacturing
The age of synthetic biology is officially upon us with super-unicorns like Ginkgo Bioworks changing the game in terms of how investors view those cell engineering platforms. Now, a California company looking to do away with fragile flora supply chains in drug development has earned a new round of investment to chase its goal.
Synbio player Antheia raised a $73 million Series B round it will use to advance its pipeline of compounds derived from a plant-alternative manufacturing process using whole yeast cell engineering, the company said Wednesday.
The round was led by Viking Global Investors and included participation from Sherpalo Ventures and Hillspire.
Antheia will aim to engineer and advance its first pharmaceutical compound developed through its yeast cell fermentation process as well as a range of key starting materials (KSM) and API, it said. Many of those precursor compounds are derived from plants with a supply chain Antheia described as “fragile” given environmental threats, including natural disasters and geopolitical conflict.
The company’s engineering platform would, in theory, replace the need for complex plant-derived compounds altogether, using engineered yeast cells acting like a “miniature factory” to churn out molecules at commercial scale. The company has some early data backing up its claims, with its first engineered KSM running at what the biotech calls “commercially relevant titers” at the pilot scale.
Meanwhile, Antheia has achieved biosynthesis in four classes of plant-derived medicines, it said, including tropane alkaloids, the process of which was documented in a September article from CEO Christina Smolke in Nature. Those drugs, which are used to treat neuromuscular disorders such as Parkinson’s and muscle spasms, rely on the “intensive cultivation” of nightshades, Antheia said, due to the fact that there is no commercial-scale chemical synthesis process available.
The supply chain for tropane alkaloids, including the antimuscarinic agent atropine used to reduce salivation before surgery and anti-nausea patches made with scopolamine, is particularly vulnerable to disruption, making it a ripe target for Antheia’s platform. To replicate the drugs, Antheia’s yeast platform had to express 26 genes derived from 10 organisms with eight gene deletions, underscoring the complexity of those drugs and Antheia’s engineering power.
“Antheia’s synthetic biology platform can prevent drug shortages by enabling more resilient and agile production of essential medicines for the US and global markets, solving one of the most challenging problems in the industry and improving the overall healthcare system,” Smolke said in a statement.
The three other plant-derived medicine classes where Antheia has achieved biosynthesis include antitussives, chemotherapeutics, and neurotransmitter inhibitors. Meanwhile, the company has eyes on “undruggable” classes of therapeutics given the potential to crack open areas of drug engineering where chemical synthesis isn’t possible.
Synbio platforms have come a long way in recent years as companies that once couldn’t hold investors’ attention are now scoring massive public offerings and fundraising rounds.
The largest, by far, is Ginkgo Bioworks, which went public in May as part of a reverse merger that valued the company pre-money at a whopping $15 billion. Ginkgo scrapped for years to earn that valuation, working on areas as diverse as perfume and synthetic meat before their commercial-scale drug manufacturing process went viral.
Meanwhile, companies like Zymergen, using cell fermentation to produce industrial materials, are also seeing a wave of new interest. The biotech closed a $500 million IPO in April with the ambitious goal of using its platform to disrupt a potential $3 billion industrial materials market.