In the past three months, Invenra has announced two new partnerships, under which the company will provide therapeutic antibodies to its collaborators.
Madison, WI-based Invenra is one of a small number of companies that has traditionally used cell-free protein expression technology to identify therapeutic monoclonal antibodies. This approach sets Invenra apart from the more popular standard today of using genetically modified cells, such as E. coli or Chinese hamster ovary cells, to produce antibodies.
In both deals, Invenra’s partner has identified a novel target of interest ahead of time. Under the terms of the agreements, Invenra says it will to develop antibodies designed to bind to the target—which could be a disease-causing protein, for instance—and perform specific functions after binding to it.
Invenra did not disclose financial terms of its arrangements with QIMR Berghofer or AgonOx in separate news releases announcing the deals.
The two agreements demonstrate what Invenra co-founder and CEO Roland Green previously described as a shift from focusing exclusively on research and development to teaming up with outside groups and bringing in revenue from the work they do together. Green described this progression to Xconomy in 2015 following his company’s announcement that it had partnered with Oxford BioTherapeutics. The U.K.-based drug developer was the first customer Invenra named publicly.
QIMR, located in Brisbane on Australia’s eastern shore, says it operates 50-plus laboratories and is home to nearly 900 scientists. It is one of the country’s largest biomedical R&D centers. AgonOx, meanwhile, develops immunotherapy drugs that regulate how the immune system responds to cancer.
Kimberly Kaufman, head of alliance management at Invenra, says it typically takes her company three to six months to have lead antibodies ready to deliver to a collaborator after the two sides agree to terms and transfer research materials. However, timelines can vary depending on the target in question, she says.
Invenra is also working to discover and develop antibodies to both known targets from scientific literature, as well as new, proprietary ones, Kaufman says. Partnered projects are progressing in parallel with internal ones, but the latter tend to run on longer timelines, she says.
“We’re always going to prioritize our collaborations to make sure that anybody who comes to us is going to get priority in our lab,” she says.
Another company that develops antibodies without using traditional cells is South San Francisco-based Sutro Biopharma. That company, which has said its technology makes it possible for antibodies to be attached to tumor-killing small molecule drugs and to hit more than one target at a time, struck a major deal with Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) in 2014.
Green has said that with Invenra’s technology, it is possible to test hundreds of thousands of full-length antibodies at a time. This can bring cost savings when compared with conventional cell-based methods for finding therapeutic antibodies, according to company leaders. Invenra has developed a new high-throughput technology using mammalian cells, which it believes will allow it and the groups it works with to identify better functional antibody leads.
The company takes what it calls a “function-forward” approach to creating antibodies. That means it’s looking not only at affinity, or how tightly an antibody binds to the target, but also whether antibodies can perform a specific action after reaching the target.
“You want your antibody to do … something functional, in terms of intervening into the disease pathology,” says Mark Kubik, who was until recently Invenra’s vice president of business development. “The way that Invenra goes about doing that is we create assays that allow us to directly interrogate these millions, if not billions, of antibody molecules and ask, ‘Which antibody is going to bind to the [target] in a way that perturbs its function?’”
Kubik made those comments to Xconomy in July, when Invenra raised a $3 million funding round. (He says he has since joined Boulder, CO-based i2 Pharmaceuticals as Chief Business Officer.) Investors have put more than $11 million into Invenra since it was formed in 2011, according to SEC documents.
A majority of the collaborations Invenra has made public to date focus at least in part on developing new cancer therapies, Kaufman says. However, she adds that her company’s technology could also be used to make antibodies for targets known to cause autoimmune disease, infectious disease, and other conditions.