Accelerator’s latest company has a vision of turning the world of antibody drug development upside down. The tenth company to roll out of the Seattle-based biotech startup machine, Xori, aims to turn lab dishes of chicken cells into factories for making better, faster, cheaper antibody drugs. Xori also represents the fulfillment of a sort of romance, but we’ll get to that later.
The company (pronounced Chore-ee) is founded on technology developed by Nancy Maizels, a professor of immunology and biochemistry at the University of Washington. The usual crew of Accelerator’s investors are backing it—Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Amgen Ventures, Arch Venture Partners, OVP Venture Partners, PPD, and WRF Capital. I heard the gist of this story during a group interview with Maizels, Accelerator president David Schubert, and Accelerator’s chief scientific director, Patrick Gray. (The exact amount wasn’t disclosed, but Accelerator usually invests less than $5 million in new companies.)
Antibody drugs that can specifically seek out diseased cells, while sparing healthy ones, are one of the biggest advances in the 30-year history of the biotech industry. Genentech became the industry’s most valuable company, worth more than $100 billion, largely because of three of these targeted medicines for cancer—marketed as Avastin, Rituxan, and Herceptin. The antibody drug market is expected to generate $30 billion in worldwide sales in 2009, with an annual growth rate of 14 percent through 2012, according to Datamonitor.
With that much money on the line, there’s a huge interest in coming up with more efficient ways of creating and selecting more antibody drug candidates. There are literally hundreds of specific targets scientists have identified on cells for these kinds of “smart bomb” therapeutics. But it’s time-consuming and expensive work—it can take a year’s worth of effort in the lab, and $10,000 or more—just to come up with a new antibody to begin the gauntlet of experiments, Maizels says.
Current industry standards require scientists to inject mice with a certain protein target, wait for them to develop antibodies against it, and then collect antibody drug candidates. One of the problems is these antibodies need to be made to incorporate more human DNA, so that when they are given to humans, they aren’t rejected by the immune system as foreign invaders.
Xori sees its edge in using genetically modified chicken cells in petri dishes, instead of going through the arduous process with mice. The chicken cells are loaded with human DNA from whatever target scientists want to hit, and the chicken cells can start pumping out antibodies in a matter of hours. If Xori is successful, it could yield antibodies that can be effective at far lower doses, which will work with fewer injections, and which might be able to hit targets on cells that mouse-derived antibodies never could, Maizels says.
“It’s a wonderful idea, and I’m excited to see how it will work,” said Leroy Hood, president of the Institute for Systems Biology, and a director of Accelerator.
Like all Accelerator companies, Xori will have to hit certain milestones over the next 24 months if it wants to win another round of funding. Maizels is keeping her day job at the UW, and the day-to-day work … Next Page »
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