Boehringer Ingelheim has partnered with Enara Bio to discover novel shared antigens for its growing cancer vaccine and bispecific activities. The agreement positions Boehringer to access novel “dark antigens” discovered by Enara.
Sequencing the human genome revealed large sections of DNA appeared to play no role in writing proteins. Since that discovery, researchers have worked to understand what, if anything, noncoding sequences of the genome do. Enara is among the groups to reveal parts of the “dark” genome are active in cancer patients.
“You start to see transcription, translation and expression of a range of what was previously thought to be noncoding regions,” Enara CEO Kevin Pojasek said. “What people are excited about is that these antigens are shared across patients with a given tumor type, much more so than traditional antigens and certainly much more so than neoantigens.”
Enara built a platform that uses RNAseq and mass spectrometry and used it to discover dark antigens across more than two dozen tumor types. The work gave Enara enough dark antigens to support its internal cell therapy R&D ambitions and partnerships with biopharma companies.
After proactively contacting biopharma companies, Enara entered into a deal with Boehringer. The deal gives Boehringer an option to license dark antigens in up to three tumor types in the lung and gastrointestinal cancer spaces. In return, Boehringer is paying an upfront fee of undisclosed size and committing to preclinical milestones and licensing fees for each tumor type. Enara could pocket up to €876 million ($1.1 billion) in clinical, regulatory and commercial milestones, plus royalties on sales.
The licenses will clear Boehringer to use the dark antigens for cancer vaccines and bispecific T-cell engagers, leaving Enara free to target them with cell therapies. Boehringer has moved deeper into cancer vaccines in recent years through the acquisitions of Amal Therapeutics and ViraTherapeutics. The deals gave Boehringer cancer vaccine platforms. The Enara pact gives it new targets to aim at.
Boehringer has committed to cancer vaccines despite the modality’s history of clinical failures. Those flops have made it harder for startups such as Enara to develop cancer vaccines, leading the biotech to seize the opportunity to gain exposure to the modality through a partnership.
“We’re a huge believer in cancer vaccines but moving forward a cancer vaccine in a venture-backed company is really challenging. We saw this as an opportunity to partner some of our interesting antigens with a company that’s committed to the space and has the capital and innovation mindset to advance programs into development,” Pojasek said.
The partners will divide up work in a way designed to play to their strengths, with Enara taking the lead on dark antigen discovery and validation before passing over to Boehringer for everything from nonclinical development onward.
Enara will carry out the work while continuing discussions with other potential partners. The range of companies interested in accessing a source of novel antigens has been affected by the validation of platforms in the fight against COVID-19.
“As companies are moving out of the acute development phase for COVID and recognizing that they’ve validated their vaccine platforms, we’re seeing some of these organizations shift then to think about how else we can put these to work. Certainly a novel set of antigens and thinking about cancer vaccines is an obvious place,” Pojasek said.