Seattle-based Cyrus Biotechnology is entering a protein engineering collaboration with Boston-based Selecta Biosciences that could raise up to $ 1.5 billion for the University of Washington spin-out. The association will support the development of new agents for conditions related to the immune system, the companies announced this week.
The partnership includes an undisclosed down payment and is worth up to $ 1.5 billion to Cyrus, if the deal reaches certain drug discovery, development and sales milestones.
The association’s main program will combine an immune modulating agent developed by Selecta with a protein called IL-2, which is being engineered by Cyrus.
Cyrus is improving IL-2 through its protein engineering software and through laboratory bench testing.
Cyrus can design therapeutic proteins with properties such as greater stability in the body, using its software tools originated at the UW Institute for Protein Design.
The new partnership is in addition to several other multi-year deals underway for Cyrus. These include an ongoing collaboration with the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard to optimize CRISPR-based gene editing techniques. Cyrus also sells its protein design software, Cyrus Bench, to 33 clients, including large pharmaceutical companies.
“Our goal is to be the primary partner for computational protein engineering of new drugs,” CEO Lucas Nivon said in an email to GeekWire.
Under the new collaboration, Cyrus will engineer IL-2 to be combined with Selecta’s immunomodulatory agent, called ImmTOR.
IL-2 is known to enhance the action of immune cells in the body called regulatory T cells, which can suppress an overactive immune system and alleviate the symptoms of autoimmune diseases. The combination of IL-2 with ImmTOR increases the number of these cells in preclinical experiments.
Two other projects are also on deck as part of the collaboration. Those projects will also involve the combination of modified proteins with ImmTOR.
“This collaboration is in perfect alignment with our expertise in protein design,” Nivon said in a statement. “With our current partners, we have demonstrated our ability to redesign existing protein biologics or build them from scratch.”
Cyrus is just one of several IPD spinouts leveraging software-based drug discovery tools, an area that is gaining increasing attention from investors.
Just this week, IPD spin-out A-Alpha Bio raised $ 20 million for its protein discovery platform. And in July, vaccine startup Icosavax went public in an IPO that raised more than $ 180 million.
IPD has also recently released a powerful tool for predicting protein folding, called RoseTTAfold, which rivals another built by Alphabet’s DeepMind, Alphafold2. Both tools surprised the life science community, which had long sought a fast computational solution for predicting protein folding.
Protein folding has been compared to solving three-dimensional puzzles. A properly shaped protein molecule could kill a stubborn enzyme or change the function of an immune cell.
The new advancements will not have an immediate effect on the new association, Nivon said, as most human drug targets already have known three-dimensional structures. The IPD and DeepMind tools will be incorporated into future versions of Cyrus workflows, Nivon said.
“Neither RoseTTA fold nor Alphafold2 will have a huge immediate impact on drug discovery processes in the coming quarters, but they will have a massive impact, we believe, on new biology and the discovery of new targets and on bringing drugs to clinical trials in the US. next two years and more, “Nivon told GeekWire.
The company is working in collaboration with large pharmaceutical companies to develop ways to use RoseTTAfold more effectively, although it is not ready for a formal announcement, Nivon said. (RoseTTA has also joined the Foldit and Rosetta @ home video game where people can donate computer time to solve protein structures.)
Nivon co-founded Cyrus in 2015 shortly after completing his postdoctoral research at IPD, and he also co-founded the bike rental company Pedal Anywhere. Cyrus was boosted by $ 8 million in hedge funds in 2017 and currently has 24 employees. He’s also hiring researchers for his biochemistry lab.
Selecta’s ImmTOR platform is being tested in combination with other protein biologics and gene therapies developed by its partners. The company has phase 3 trials for gout and several agents in late preclinical development or ready to enter phase 1 trials. Selecta raised $ 70 million when it went public in 2016 and had about $ 150 million in cash on hand at May, according to an investor presentation.
“We are fortunate to have this opportunity to optimize and advance our portfolio through the design and generation of innovative protein therapies,” said Selecta CEO Carsten Brunn in the statement. “Ultimately, this collaboration has the potential to unlock new treatment options and improve the lives of patients suffering from serious and debilitating illnesses.”
ImmTOR combines a nanoparticle with an immunomodulatory drug, rapamycin. Adding a therapeutic protein to the particle makes that protein less likely to be attacked by the immune system. It also makes the protein less likely to be eliminated by the body or cause a reaction in the patient.
Both Selecta and Cyrus are overcoming this key problem with protein engineering, which is that such proteins can be rejected by the body.
ImmTor rejects the body’s response to a particular protein. And Cyrus can engineer a protein for the body to accept. “Together we approach the same problem in different and completely additive ways,” Nivon told GeekWire.