LONDON – Kymab Group Ltd. has raised $100 million in a series C round led by new Chinese investors, enabling it to move five antibody programs to the clinic over the next three years, with the first trial commencing in 2017.
The Chinese investors, ORI Healthcare Fund L.P. and Shenzhen Hepalink Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., join existing shareholders Wellcome Trust, the Gates Foundation, Malin Corp. plc, Woodford Equity Income Fund and Woodford Capital plc, which after putting a collective $120 million into the series A and B rounds, are all following on.
While not explicitly setting out to attract Chinese investors, CEO David Chiswell said Kymab has made a point of cultivating interest in its science there. "The scientific founder Allan Bradley saw the world was changing fast and China would be a big part of the future," Chiswell said.
In the event, Kymab went looking to raise $100 million as ORI Healthcare founder Simone Song, former investment banker and head of China health care at Goldman Sachs, was getting the $200 million fund off the ground. "They had just set up and wanted a keynote investment. The introduction to Hepalink followed," Chiswell told BioWorld Today. The large funding round was completed against the backdrop of the U.K. referendum vote to leave the EU, which is causing uncertainty for inward investors and for companies that rely on recruiting expertise from the EU. Chiswell said Cambridge, U.K.-based Kymab, "will be able to cope" and is continuing to recruit "from next door and from Europe."
By luck – if not foresight – the deal was priced in U.S. dollars, providing a significant financial boost from the vote to exit the EU, which has prompted a large fall in the value of the pound. On June 23, the day of the referendum, $100 million bought £68 million. On Nov. 17, the day the series C round was announced, $100 million was worth £81 million.
The Chinese investors are buying into what is an exceptionally well-financed company by U.K. biotech start-up standards.
On its foundation in July 2010 Kymab attracted $30 million from the Wellcome Trust venture capital arm, allowing it to complete development of its Kymouse platform technology for generating human monoclonal antibodies in transgenic mice.
That was followed by a further $90 million series B, raised in two tranches in May 2014 and May 2015, with which Kymab has deployed the Kymouse to develop an extensive portfolio of preclinical programs.
The first of these, KY1005, is targeting Ox40, a member of the tumor necrosis factor receptor family, in the treatment of graft-vs.-host disease following bone marrow transplant. Data using KY1005 in combination with rapamycin in non-human primates are due to be presented at the American Society of Hematology meeting in San Diego on Dec. 4.
Kymab is not disclosing details of the other four programs, though Chiswell said they include immuno-oncology and infectious disease targets.
The Kymab mouse is proving to be enormously productive and fast at generating fully matured human antibodies in response to immunization, obviating the need for time-consuming humanization. The Kymab library contains more than 100 trillion different antibodies.
Applying this resource, the speed of discovery is such that the second-in-line program, started only in January 2016, already has been handed over for bioprocess development and manufacturing to Lonza. Having speeded up discovery, manufacturing development has become a bottleneck, Chiswell said. "It takes two years because of the highly regulated nature of the process."
Hepalink's biologics manufacturing capabilities could come into play here, with Li Li, president and chairman of Hepalink, saying, "We are pleased to invest in a world-leading antibody company and look forward to potential collaborative opportunities with Kymab."
To date Kymab has formed discovery partnerships with Novo Nordisk A/S, Heptares plc and Epimab Inc., and with a number of academic groups. In 2013 it launched Kymab Access, allowing academics involved in translational clinical research to use Kymouse to discover antibodies against their targets.
As part of the initial investment of $20 million in the series B round by the Gates Foundation, Kymab agreed to form collaborations with the foundation's partners in vaccine antigen research in malaria and HIV.
That is starting to bear fruit, with some early progress in developing an HIV vaccine reported in Science on Sept. 8. The paper, "Priming HIV-1 broadly neutralizing antibody precursors in human Ig loci transgenic mice," describes inducing human antibodies against HIV in the Kymouse.
Kymab execs said that having a transgenic mouse with a fully human immune system will be a potent tool in vaccine research as a whole. Kymouse is an accessible surrogate for assessing normal human immune responses, making it possible to identify antibodies and to get a much better indication of efficacy than currently is possible with existing animal models of infection.
The difference in the immunoglobulin variable genes in rats and humans is so vast that antigen selections made on the basis of rat models frequently fail to provide insights into the corresponding human response. The result is to halve the success rate of vaccine candidates compared to other biopharmaceuticals, according to Kymab.
In January Kymab established a discovery and development alliance with MD Anderson in which the two partners are bringing the Kymab library to bear on MD Anderson's cancer targets. One program arising from the collaboration, KY1041, is in preclinical development, while a second, KY1050 is in discovery research.
With funding to advance five programs to phase I, there will be a renewed push on deal making. "We need to do deals and partnerships. We will be identifying indications and territories where we will focus and look to do higher value deals on the back of clinical data," said Chiswell.