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Drug Maker Gains Access to Hidden Protein Immunotherapies

T-cells and cancer cells

Killer T-cells surround a cancer cell (NICHD, Flickr)

12 Jan. 2021. Global drug maker Boehringer Ingelheim is gaining access to an immunotherapy technology that targets usually hidden proteins to attack cancer cells. The deal could bring Enara Bio in Oxford, U.K. as much as €876 million ($US 1.1 billion) in milestone payments as well as undisclosed initial licensing and preclinical research funds, if fully implemented.

Enara Bio discovers cancer therapies that invoke the immune system, but unlike other immunotherapies, addresses what the company calls dark antigens, derived from parts of the human genome usually not expressed as proteins. The company’s technology targets T-cell receptors with a small group of proteins generated independently of the human leukocyte antigen complex of proteins regulating the immune system. In January 2020, the company, then known as Ervaxx, licensed research on these hidden proteins from Cardiff University in Wales, U.K. identifying T-cell clones that attack multiple types of human cancer cells, while remaining harmless to non-cancerous tissue.

In June 2020, the company under its new name Enara Bio began focusing its research and development on discovering cancer therapies based on dark antigens addressing these T-cell receptors. Enara says its dark antigens can be combined to create off-the shelf cancer immunotherapy vaccines, or used with a patient’s own T-cells to generate personalized lab-produced immunotherapies.

Option to license Enara Bio technology

The agreement offers Boehringer Ingelheim an option to license rights to the Enara Bio technology for discovery and validation of dark antigens to treat up to three types of lung or gastrointestinal tumors. An option gives a licensing prospect an opportunity to review and decide whether to license a technology, usually for a fixed period of time. However, the companies believe the dark antigens discovered may be developed further into treatments for a broader range of cancer patients.

“We are advancing a unique pipeline of cancer cell-directed agents, immuno-oncology therapies and intelligent combination approaches to help combat cancer,” says Jonathon Sedgwick, who heads Boehringer Ingelheim’s research on cancer immunology, in a statement. “Enara Bio’s unique discovery platform offers a novel and highly differentiated approach that will allow us to look beyond the known proteome to identify and characterize dark antigens to support the development of T-cell receptor-directed immunotherapies and therapeutic vaccines.”

Under the agreement, Boehringer Ingelheim is responsible for clinical development and commercialization of cancer immunotherapies, therapeutic vaccines, and biologics targeting T-cells. Enara Bio is receiving from Boehringer Ingelheim an undisclosed initial payment, as well as licensing-option fees and support for further preclinical research. In addition, Enara Bio is eligible for €876 million in clinical, regulatory, and commercialization milestone payments if the full licensing and collaboration deal goes through.

Kevin Pojasek, president and CEO of Enara Bio says, “We are excited to build this relationship and are encouraged that Boehringer Ingelheim shares our view of the potential of dark antigens to be a source of important and unconventional targets for novel cancer immunotherapies.” Enara Bio retains rights to dark antigens discovered under the deal for development as unrelated cell therapy products.

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