Invenra has had success developing therapeutic antibodies for its own drug research, and for the research of others. Now the Madison, WI-based company has signed on with pharma giant Merck, which hopes Invenra’s antibody expertise can help it develop new drugs.
Under the terms of the recent agreement, Invenra will discover antibodies against a target of interest to Kenilworth, NJ-based Merck (NYSE: MRK), Invenra says. The companies provided no details on the target. But Invenra has particular expertise developing antibodies for cancer immunotherapies.
Roland Green, co-founder and CEO of Invenra, says his company will likely have antibodies ready to deliver to Merck by late 2017 or early 2018.
Invenra’s press release announcing its collaboration with Merck does not contain specific financial terms. Green says the agreement is essentially a partnership, rather than Merck becoming a customer of Invenra or vice versa.
“This collaboration marks a significant milestone for Invenra,” Green says in the release. “Invenra’s ability to test antibodies for a functional phenotype early in the screening process combined with Merck’s established role as a leader in this field will advance the science regarding difficult-to-address targets.”
Invenra’s core business is discovering antibodies and performing related biology work around targets the company’s partners have identified in advance. The partners are then responsible for taking the drugs forward into the clinic. Besides Merck, the collaborators Invenra has named publicly include U.K.-based Oxford BioTherapeutics and Portland, OR-based AgonOx.
Invenra says the partnership will allow Merck to save time by avoiding the possibility of developing antibodies that have poor drug characteristics, and ultimately cannot be used.
In an interview earlier this week, Green said that Merck already has lots of antibody discovery capabilities—both in-house, and licensed from other companies, such as Lebanon, NH-based Adimab. Green did not shed much additional light on the terms of Invenra’s agreement with Merck. However, he did explain what his company’s technology can bring to its larger partner.
The antibodies Invenra develops are designed to stick to a specific target—a protein that causes disease, for example—and then perform functions on the targets. Invenra concentrates on antibodies for immuno-oncology that are bi-specific, meaning they can bind to two different types of antigens simultaneously.
Some of the antibodies the company is developing can even bind to three targets, Green says. At large pharma companies with highly regarded antibody discovery platforms, development pipelines tend to be mostly made up of multi-specific antibodies, he says.
“If you have a good multi-specific antibody drug, it’s high-value because there aren’t many on the open market,” Green says. “There are only a few major players that have a decent platform that works.”
One of them is Switzerland-based Roche, Green says. The company’s therapeutic antibody development platform is known as CrossMAb. In September, Summit, NJ-based Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) acquired EngMab (also based in Switzerland) for $625 million. EngMab had built two preclinical drug candidates on Roche’s antibody platform, Green says, and the acquisition reflects the value that some large biotech companies place on promising antibodies.
Invenra also has its own internal pipeline of antibodies designed to bind to targets the company has identified itself. Invenra says that next year it plans to file for the FDA’s approval to start clinical trials on two drug candidates.
Even though Invenra’s work with its pharma partners takes priority over the company’s internal pipeline, Green says he believes there is value in “having some of your own assets.”
“It’s a double bonus for us because the assets themselves are valuable, but they also allow you to present significant amounts of data to potential new partners,” he says. “One of the problems we’ve had in the past is most of our work has been for other partners, but then we can never share those data. And so we don’t have deep data sets we can use to essentially prove [the technology’s effectiveness] to new customers.”
Green says that Invenra would eventually find a partner to further develop its own internally discovered drug candidates if they progress as expected.
“We don’t expect to run these all the way through Phase 3 [clinical trials] and market approval ourselves,” he says. “We’re not big enough to carry that out.”
Investors have poured more than $11 million into the company since it was formed in 2011, according to documents filed with federal securities regulators. Invenra’s latest round of financing was a $3 million raise that closed a year ago.