Belharra’s wave catches Genentech in $130M launch for new drug discovery engine

Belharra’s wave catches Genentech in $130M launch for new drug discovery engine

Belharra Therapeutics is finally ready to rise out of stealth with $130 million in capital and Genentech caught up in the wave with a multiple-year collaboration.

The newly-emerged biotech is off to a great start with the partnership, which will see the two companies work together to develop small molecule drugs in oncology, immuno-oncology, autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases.

Genentech is putting up $80 million upfront, but could pay out $2 billion over time in development, commercial and net sales milestones plus royalties on any future sales. Belharra will conduct discovery work and early pre-clinical development before Genentech takes over at the late pre-clinical stage to drive any resulting candidates through to commercialization. Belharra will also have an option to co-develop certain oncology or immunology programs designated by Genentech through phase 1 and also co-fund the remaining development through a U.S. cost/profit split and outside U.S. milestone payments and royalties.

The Genentech deal adds to the $50 million the biotech emerged out of stealth with, for a total of $130 million. The company was launched from Versant Ventures’ Inception Discovery Engine with an integrated chemoproteomic-based drug discovery engine that helps to overcome the challenges of screening for drug candidates.

Belharra’s tech boasts a “library” of photoaffinity-based chemical probes, which are commonly used in drug discovery, to explore protein-ligand interactions in the cell. The technology aims to find undruggable pockets on the cells by deploying photoaffinity-based labeling to “trap” unique non-covalent protein-ligand interactions.

The biotech believes its platform offers a next-generation advancement over previous chemoproteomics platforms. The platform’s potential was enough to attract Genentech, which, according to Global Head of Pharma Partnering James Sabry, M.D., Ph.D., is hoping to leverage the partnership to find therapies for diseases that have been inaccessible to traditional approaches.

Belharra is helmed by Jeff Jonker, who previously held upper leadership roles at Ambys Medicines and NGM Biopharmaceuticals. At NGM, he helped establish a deal with Merck & Co. to work on a clutch of medicines, including an anti-complement C3 antibody for a degenerative eye disease called geographic atrophy. That drug and others were cut out of the deal after a phase 2 failure at the end of 2022, and Merck had previously narrowed the scope of the collaboration.

The biotech’s science comes from the labs of Scripps Research, specifically Christopher Parker, Ph.D., John Teijaro, Ph.D., and Ben Cravatt, Ph.D. While still in stealth, Belharra worked with the Scripps team and Versant’s Inception Therapeutics in San Diego to use the technology to build the library of small molecule photoaffinity probes. Thanks to that behind-the-scenes work, Belharra believes it will have candidates to nominate in oncology and immunology indications in 2023.

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