Adagio Therapeutics is the latest biotech firm with plans to develop a monoclonal antibody therapy that targets SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Adagio stands apart from other antibody developers, however, since its antibodies are designed to target not only SARS-CoV-2 but other coronaviruses, including ones that have never infected humans.
The new venture is also the first company founded, financed, and launched during the current pandemic that is dedicated to coronavirus drug discovery. Adagio is a spin-off from Adimab, which works with drug companies to design monoclonal antibody therapies. Several venture capital firms chipped in to launch Adagio with $50 million in series A financing today.
For the past several years, Laura Walker, director of antibody sciences at Adimab, has led a team that creates so-called broadly neutralizing antibody therapies, ones that can take down several strains of a virus, instead of dealing with the strains one at a time. “That’s what is different about this story,” Adimab CEO Tillman Gerngross says. “It’s not another game of whack-a-mole.”
Most scientists developing antibodies for SARS-CoV-2 report being unable to find antibodies that neutralize both SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV-1, the coronavirus that caused the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003. Walker says this is because many of them are using antibodies obtained from people just weeks after recovering from COVID-19. Those antibodies haven’t undergone a process called affinity maturation, in which they evolve to find better, and tighter, grips on the virus.
To find antibodies that had already evolved, Walker’s team isolated antibody-producing B cells from people who were infected with SARS-CoV-1 back in 2003, and then looked for antibodies that neutralized SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2, and similar coronaviruses that infect bats. That work, published last month, led to the discovery of a few lead candidates that Adagio is now evaluating in preclinical studies to either treat or prevent COVID-19 (Science 2020, DOI: 10.1126/science.abc7424).
Gerngross, who is Adagio’s CEO, and Walker, who is the start-up’s chief scientific officer, invited investors to hear their pitch for a new coronavirus company over a videoconference. It didn’t take them long to exceed their goal of raising around $40 million for their series A financing round. “The round was oversubscribed in about 45 minutes, which is not the norm by biotech funding standards,” says Marc Elia, a cofounder of the venture capital firm M28 Capital, which invested in Adagio. “It was very remarkable to watch.”
Adagio plans to begin testing its lead antibody in humans by the end of the year, Gerngross says. Even though other firms, such as Eli Lilly and Company and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, are already testing antibody therapies that target SARS-CoV-2 in the clinic, Gerngross isn’t worried about the therapy becoming irrelevant, either due to other antibody therapies or a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” he says. “If I felt that we had highly efficacious vaccines in the next year or so, this may not be necessary.” He calls Adagio’s antibodies an “insurance policy” to current vaccine development, which he worries may not be enough to control the pandemic, especially since vaccines frequently don’t work well in elderly people.
Walker points to another reason that antibody therapies may still be needed, even if scientists are successful in their pursuit of a vaccine. “The vast majority of antiviral vaccines do not induce sterilizing protection, meaning they do not prevent infection. They just prevent disease,” she says. That means that young people who are vaccinated may get infected, not know it, and potentially pass the virus on to older individuals who have a higher risk of developing a severe disease.
“I think antibody therapies will be very valuable in these high-risk populations,” Walker adds.
The start-up hopes it can develop its antibodies fast enough to make a difference during the current pandemic, but it could also make a profit from governments looking to stockpile coronavirus antivirals. M28’s Elia says he has a hard time imagining “anything more clearly relevant than a broadly neutralizing antibody” as a coronavirus countermeasure to have at the ready.
“This is the third major coronavirus outbreak in the past two decades, and there is no reason to believe this will be the last one,” Gerngross says. “There will be more, it is just a question of when.”