Endpoints News | WuXi-backed Adagene scores $69M round led by General Atlantic to push antibodies where Bristol-Myers struggled Published: Jan 08, 2020 08:05 AM | By Amber Tong, Venture

Back when Peter Luo founded Adagene in 2012, much of China was still focused on biosimilars and contract services as the industry struggled to bring manufacturing quality up to global standards. But the Stanford-trained scientist and battle-tested entrepreneur — together with longtime friend and WuXi founder Ge Li — saw an opportunity to begin building a platform play centered around engineering better antibodies.

Now General Atlantic has joined some top-tier Chinese investors including WuXi Ventures, Eight Roads and Sequoia for a $69 million Series D, bringing the total haul to $150 million just as Adagene begins to see some early clinical validation.

“We believe China is a rising, vibrant hub for global life sciences innovation,” Lefei Sun, head of healthcare for China at General Atlantic, said in a statement.

Adagene’s two lead assets both target well known cancer-driving immune checkpoints: ADG106 agonizes CD137, or 4-1BB, and ADG116 blocks CTLA-4.

Bristol-Myers Squibb, which pioneered the first and only CTLA-4 inhibitor Yervoy, also tried developing a 4-1BB agonist antibody dubbed urelumab, but hopes for a monotherapy were dashed after liver toxicities emerged. And the use of Yervoy itself has been limited due to safety concerns.

By zeroing in on some “tricky epitopes,” Luo said, they were able to find a superior candidate that activates 4-1BB in a native ligand-like fashion. And partnering with WuXi, arguably the most powerful CRO in China, has saved lots of headaches in production.

“There are all kinds of ways to make antibodies,” Luo explained to Endpoints News. “But to do it consistently and discover something unusual […] you really have to figure out a novel library of antibodies, such as our Dynamic Precision Library, which will be able to hit and cover very extensive epitopes of that target, and that allow you to ask some fundamental questions about mechanism of actions if that antibody engages on that unique epitope of a given target.”

The Dynamic Precision Library, also called Neobody internally, is only one of three platforms upholding Adagene’s business. Shortly after it announced a takeover by Bristol-Myers, Celgene inked a deal with the biotech to discover antibodies against targets of their choice. And a Chinese partner, Sanjin, has licensed another compound selected from the library.

Then there’s SAFEbody, which allows Adagene to mask the antibody binding sites such that they are only activated in tumor microenvironments. It has attracted ADC Therapeutics as the Swiss company searched for ways to limit systematic exposure of their armed antibodies.

“In this case they can bypass those on-target, off-tumor toxicity issues,” Luo said.

As he pushes forward for cohort expansions in global trials of Adagene’s first assets, he’s also looking to debut a third tech dubbed Powerbody, designed to enhance efficacy.

Adagene has two headquarters in Suzhou and San Francisco, with a heavy BD presence in the US. Luo — who co-founded another antibody developer (Abmaxis) that was ultimately acquired by Merck — is banking on the science that’s happening in between.

“So I think this is the most interesting part of the whole industry,” he said. “Doesn’t matter how big a position financially in the industry. In terms of true innovation it is still rare and it comes in a very unexpected way. Therefore, you can combine the global technology innovation with the scale of operation in China for the increased productivity that allows you to hit the serendipity that we are looking for.”
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