SHANGHAI – Newly founded biopharma Harbour Biomed Therapeutics Ltd., of Shanghai, has acquired privately held Harbour Antibody BV, of Cambridge, Mass. The cash-and-equity deal was inked after Harbour Biomed secured $50 million in venture financing from life science investors Adventech and Legend.
The acquisition gives Harbour Biomed two transgenic mice antibody technology platforms, enabling the discovery of fully humanized antibodies, particularly in the promising area of bispecifics. The firm aims to use the technology to develop immune-oncology therapies for China as well as global markets.
"This type of [transgenic mice] technology is rare to find. Whenever you get the chance, you want to get your hands on it and make it a part of your R&D platform," Jingsong Wang, co-founder and CEO of Harbour Biomed, told BioWorld Today. He added that no other local companies in China are using that platform.
Harbour's two platforms are H2L2, referring to two heavy chains and two light chains, and HCAb, referring to heavy chain-only antibodies. The H2L2 platform generates conventional, full-length human antibodies, while the HCAb platform enables the development of differentiated, next-generation molecules, including bi- and multispecific antibodies and antibody fragment-based therapeutics.
The introduction of human heavy and light chain transgene loci into an engineered mouse results in the production, in response to antigen challenge, of either a single class of conventional human antibodies carrying a specific set of effector function (e.g., IgG or IgA), or multiple classes of antibodies (e.g., IgM and IgG), depending on the heavy chain immunoglobulin loci.
Wang said the process will face fewer technical difficulties, especially in the all-important manufacturing stage, because more of the initial work can be conducted in vivo. Both platforms eliminate the need for humanization steps, reducing time and costs.
Making the leap from big pharma to startup
CEO Wang, along with the Chief Scientific Officer Liang Schweizer, are among the founding members of the company. Both come from stints at Sanofi China as well as Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. At Sanofi, Wang was head of China R&D and translational medicine, while Schweizer was head of Sanofi Asia cancer research.
Taking the leap from big pharma to being an entrepreneur Wang said is a "natural progression." From his time in academia to his time in industry, he has worked with various platforms for generating human antibodies using transgenic mice and other technology platforms. At BMS, he was involved with the 2009 $2.4 billion deal to acquire Medarex Inc. and he worked in close partnership with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., which has an exclusive relationship with Sanofi.
Wang is a believer in the power of the newly acquired transgenic mice platform to efficiently discover antibody therapies with good manufacturability. It was the opportunity to acquire Harbour Antibody that encouraged Wang, and the other founders, to leave pharma jobs, establish a new company and approach investors.
Given that starting from scratch and focusing on discovery is a lengthy, time-consuming process, the startup's business model has several components. In addition to in-house discovery efforts, Harbour Biomed will partner on later-stage candidates.
The subsidiary will continue generating revenue from its technology licensing operations. Harbour Antibody has signed more than 30 licensing deals based on its platforms, with companies such as Eli Lilly and Co., Pfizer Inc., and Shangpharma Co. Ltd., as well as academic institutions globally. The first wave of those antibodies is expected to enter clinical trials in 2017.
"We are leveraging our platform to build a discovery portfolio. We also have partners for co-discovery and co-development based on the platform," said Wang. "In addition, the team we assembled has extensive experience in drug development and registering drugs in China so we are looking at opportunities for clinical-stage assets to be developed and enter the market in China and globally."
Currently, the firm has four H2L2 programs, four HCAb programs and four bispecific programs in the discovery and preclinical stages.
"We got the stage set, now we need to put on a show, to drive programs and realize the potential of this rare strategic resource in the industry, and to maximize value, get closer to the patients and to the market. We will translate the technology with the aim of producing innovative therapeutics for patients," said Wang.
Harbour Antibodies was originally founded by researchers at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Roger Craig. Existing shareholders, including VC firm Atlas Venture, are retaining an interest in Harbour Biomed. Harbour Antibodies' scientific founder, Frank Grosveld, will become a member of the Harbour Biomed scientific advisory board.
Harbour Biomed is headquartered with R&D operations in Shanghai, business operations in Cambridge, Mass., and antibody platform innovation operations in Rotterdam. The company plans to establish a drug discovery center in the Boston area.