Adimab, a Lebanon, N.H., biotech startup developing a “platform” for the discovery and commercialization of yeast-derived antibodies, raised $6 million in a first funding round (hat tips to the In Vivo Blog and VentureWire). The company was founded by Darthmouth’s Tillman Gerngross — who co-founded GlycoFi, a biotech acquired by Merck last year for $400 million — and MIT’s Dane Wittrup. Both researchers are chemical engineers with a longstanding interest in protein expression and engineering.
The concept behind Adimab is kind of intriguing, although it’s also complex and limited to solving a particular set of business-process issues — which, when you think about it, is just about what you’d expect a pair of engineers to come up with. The problem, at heart, is that monoclonal antibodies are a pain for many pharmaceutical companies to work with, due to the fact that discovering them and preparing them for use as drugs involves a variety of disparate technologies, many of them owned by a hodgepodge of other companies and institutions. Working out licensing agreements to acquire rights to all these technologies is possible, but still something of a headache.
As I understand it from an interview Gerngross gave to In Vivo, Adimab plans to address this problem by developing its own bottom-up system for discovering new antibodies and moving them along the development process. (The company’s name, which it prefers to capitalize as “ADiMaB,” is a mash-up of several of these development steps: Antibody Discovery, Maturation and Biomanufacturing.) Ideally, this yeast-based “platform” would yield antibodies that aren’t tied down by the web of intellectual property that covers many of today’s antibodies, making a potentially attractive fit for the first Big Pharma company that comes along. In fact, Gerngross seems explicitly mercenary about his intentions, telling In Vivo that “we’re building a business that will service pharma better than anyone else and [one] that could very quickly trigger an acquisition.”
Which is great so far as it goes, I suppose, although it’s hard to get too worked up about a new company when one of the co-founders seems to want it to disappear into some big-company bureaucracy as quickly as possible. The technology behind Adimab, however, is pretty interesting, involving as it seems to fairly recently developed techniques for forcing yeast cells to produce human antibodies (a 2006 Wittrup paper describing this technique of “yeast surface display” is here). Although since this also sounds a lot like what GlycoFi was doing, it will be interesting to see how Adimab’s approach differs.
In addition to the advantages described above, yeast-based production of human antibodies would presumably also be considerably faster and more efficient than current techniques, which generally involve mouse antibodies that require additional “humanizing” so they aren’t eliminated by the immune system when used as drugs. Of course, the technology is still at an early stage, and to the best of my knowledge, no yeast-derived antibody has even been tested in humans as an experimental therapeutic, much less turned into a functioning drug. (As always, if you know otherwise, please let us know in comments.)