A precision medicine startup led by biotechnology veterans and backed by B.C.’s AbCellera Biologics Inc. ABCL-Q has raised US$110-million to develop drugs that can deliver radioactive attacks on tumours with minimal impact on other parts of the body.
Abdera Therapeutics, based in Vancouver and Menlo Park, Calif., said Thursday that San Francisco life-sciences investment firm venBio led the financing, which was also backed by other heavyweight biotechnology investors Viking Global Investors, Qiming Venture Partners USA and RTW Investments.
Also participating were investors from a previously undisclosed US$32.5-million financing of Abdera in 2021, which was co-led by Versant Ventures and Canada’s Amplitude Ventures and backed by a trio of Vancouver investors: AbCellera, incubator adMare BioInnovations and Northview LifeSciences. Abdera also raised $8-million in seed financing in early 2021.
Abdera is developing sophisticated antibodies that can deliver radiopharmaceutical therapies to specific cancer cells like a parcel delivery service. After the antibody latches on to tumour cells, radioactive isotopes on board blow up their cancerous DNA without affecting other organs, notably the kidneys, which are often affected by radiation. The radioactive antibody is engineered to clear out of the body quickly, unlike other treatments that stay in circulation for days and can harm bone marrow.
“Abdera takes a really unique approach that got us very excited,” said Joel Drewry, principal with San Francisco-based Versant, one of the most prolific U.S. biotech investors in Canada.
The company is starting out by developing a treatment targeting small cell lung cancer but says its platform can be used to produce a range of other therapies that work similarly on other cancerous ailments that have proven difficult to treat. The first target “is a high unmet medical need in cancer,” said Abdera board member Nancy Harrison, a venture partner with Amplitude. “What’s great about this methodology is we can go after targets others can’t.”
Abdera chief executive officer Lori Lyons-Williams said in an interview she joined last year because she believed the historically flat radiation therapy market was about to hit a “massive inflection point” after giants Novartis AG and Bayer AG spent billions on startups in the space, and Novartis got regulatory approval for radiotherapy products Pluvicto and Lutathera, which are expected to deliver huge sales. “It’s always fun to come into a market that’s about to explode,” the San Francisco Bay Area-based CEO said. She added Abdera’s technology “was custom designed to fully unlock the potential with radio isotopes” and is well-advanced.
Abdera was founded by three veterans of the British Columbia life-sciences scene: Lana Janes, senior vice-president of operations and innovation and former chief patent officer with QLT Inc.; senior vice-president of research Adam Judge, formerly research director of Tekmira Pharmaceuticals; and senior adviser Michael Abrams, past CEO of Inimex Pharmaceuticals Inc. and AnorMED Inc. Mr. Judge and Mr. Abrams in 2020 began looking to design precision radiotherapy drugs, and joined forces with Ms. Janes, who was researching market opportunities in the space at adMare.
The co-founders then partnered with AbCellera, which can rapidly create antibodies using a unique mixture of technologies that has made the Vancouver company one of Canada’s most valuable biotechnology companies. AbCellera agreed in January, 2021, to help Abdera develop antibody-based targeted radiopharmaceutical therapies for nine clinically validated cancer targets. In exchange AbCellera received equity and will get payments as drugs advance toward regulatory approval, plus royalties on net product sales.
“This is a deal we’re very excited about,” said AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen, whose company has entered into 174 drug discovery programs with 40 partners. “Abdera has the potential to be a giant company. Radiopharmaceuticals is an exciting area, and this is an archetypical example” of what AbCellera can do by making it easier, faster and cheaper for drug developers to discover and advance products to market.
The group went from concept to validation with early animal tumour-testing data within 10 months. By the end of 2022, Abdera had its lead drug candidate ready to start studies to file for an investigational new drug application with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The 32-person company hopes to have its treatment into human safety trials next year.