DUBLIN – Biontech AG is bolstering its antibody discovery capabilities by acquiring the antibody generation unit of its erstwhile partner, Mab Discovery GmbH, for an undisclosed sum. Mainz, Germany-based Biontech gains an 18-person unit, based in Munich, as well as the assets and know-how required to generate antibodies from Mab Discovery's rabbit-based antibody discovery platform.
Biontech had been working with Mab Discovery since 2013 on a contractual basis. "It's been a very fruitful collaboration," Biontech's chief operating officer, Sean Marett, told BioWorld. Owning the platform will transform its access to the technology. "It gives us much more flexibility and, of course, speed."
Mab Discovery is one of a minicluster of companies that extol the virtues of rabbit-derived antibodies. It has long claimed that the wide diversity of the rabbit antibody repertoire results in well-behaved molecules with high affinity and potency from the get-go, eliminating the need for cumbersome optimization procedures. (See BioWorld Today, March 28, 2014.)
Biontech aims to accelerate antibody development even further by plugging the Mab Discovery technology into its in-house Ribomabs platform. That entails synthesizing and administering mRNA molecules encoding a humanized antibody of interest instead of the actual protein. The approach eliminates the 12 to 18 months that are typically required to develop a functioning producer cell line for antibody manufacturing, while taking advantage of the rapid timescales required for RNA production.
A preclinical study, published in the July 2017 issue of Nature Medicine, established technical proof of concept. Sustained, endogenous synthesis of bispecific T-cell engaging antibodies, the study authors reported, was feasible, and repeat dosing was possible. The process employed mRNA molecules that contained modified nucleosides to limit immune activation. Additional design features improved intracellular stability and translational efficiency. The potency of the resulting bispecific antibodies was comparable to and even better than that of the corresponding antibody. "That's something we really want to continue to build on," Marett said.
A first Ribomab therapeutic is about 12 to 18 months from entering the clinic, he said.
The present acquisition is comparable with Biontech's purchase in 2016 of Planegg-Martinsried-based 4SC AG's small-molecule discovery unit, which had 22 staffers. Like that acquisition, the Mab Discovery unit will add an additional capability to the company's already formidable technological reach, which also includes cell and gene therapy, mRNA-based cancer vaccines – based either on individual patients' unique set of neoantigens or on shared tumor-associated antigens – and engineered nanoparticles, as well as biomarker discovery and diagnostics development.
The possibility of spinning out one of those activities into a standalone entity has been raised in the past, but it is looking less and less likely, given the synergies offered by having all of the platforms under a single (metaphorical) roof. "You can say, 'Never say never,' but what we have is a company that is really looking to provide the right treatment for the right patient based on molecular analysis of the tumor," Marett said.
Meanwhile, Munich-based Mab Discovery will continue to develop its internal preclinical pipeline of proprietary antibodies and to service its existing agreements with other firms. It has, since its formation in 2010, entered collaborations with Genmab A/S, Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH, Sanofi SA, Iomx Therapeutics AG and Synthon Biopharmaceuticals BV. The company declined to comment on the Biontech deal, citing contractual obligations. It is not clear, therefore, whether the deal represents a profitable exit for its long-time funder, Wilmington, N.C.-based CRO PPD Inc.
News of the deal will, no doubt, be of interest to several firms focusing on rabbit-derived antibodies and antibody fragments, including Apexigen Inc., of San Carlos, Calif., which is conducting multiple trials of its CD40 agonist, APX-005M, and Numab AG, of Pfäffikon, Switzerland, which remains preclinical, but which recently added Mario Sznol from Yale Cancer Center and David Hong from the MD Anderson Cancer Center to its clinical advisory board.