Bayer has signed on with Arvinas to explore the use of protein degradation for both human therapeutic and agricultural applications. The funds from the deal, worth $110 million, will cover a drug discovery collaboration, an agricultural joint venture, and a roughly 4% stake in the New Haven, Connecticut–based biotech firm.
Whereas small-molecule drugs typically block the activity of their protein target, degraders prompt a protein to be broken down altogether. These bifunctional molecules feature one end that tethers to a protein of interest and another that links to an E3 ubiquitin ligase, which then earmarks the protein for the cell’s trash compactor, the proteasome.
Drug companies have in recent years invested heavily in the technology, which could allow chemists to tackle long-elusive proteins. Arvinas, which was founded in 2013 to commercialize research emerging from the labs of Yale University chemical biologist Craig Crews, earlier this year became the first biotech company to get a protein degrader—a prostate cancer drug—into human tests. The pact with Bayer will expand Arvinas’s therapeutic focus beyond oncology to include cardiovascular diseases and gynecology.
But it’s the agricultural component of the venture that truly forges into new territory. Bayer approached Arvinas several months ago to explore the idea of applying the technology to weeds and insect pests. Although the notion of developing agricultural products had never occurred to Arvinas, CEO John Houston says the company’s scientists quickly learned that the system humans use to break down proteins is largely conserved across species. After a pilot program, Bayer is committing more than $55 million to a joint venture that the partners say is the first time industry will apply protein degradation to agricultural applications.
Bayer and Arvinas researchers have a lot to learn about the details of how that system works in plants and insects, says Pascal von Koskull-Döring, head of weed control early discovery for Bayer Crop Science.
The first goal of the venture is similar to Arvinas’s early work in human therapeutics: to understand how protein degraders are taken up and distributed within plants, insects, and animals, Houston says. Researchers will explore which ligases can be hijacked in other species and if they are similar to those in humans.