MIT-Born Enumeral Advances Human-Based Method for Hunting Drugs

12/20/11Follow @arleneweintraub

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antibodies from them, which can be turned into drug candidates. Inventors of humanized mice have been hot properties in biotech: Freemont, CA-based Abgenix was purchased for $2.2 billion by biotech giant Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN) in 2005, and Princeton, NJ-based Medarex was snapped up its New York partner Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) for $2.1 billion in 2009.

And in 2010, San Francisco-based Ablexis signed a deal to provide its antibody-discovery technology to Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) and four other companies. Ablexis also makes a mouse with a human immune system, and it has pulled in venture funding from both Pfizer and Third Rock Ventures.

The folks at Enumeral believe their system will offer a better way to discover fully-human antibodies against disease. “My personal belief is that what you want to find is not just fully human by DNA sequences—it’s fully human by immune experience,” Tinkelenberg says. In other words, an engineered mouse might have a human immune system, but it may not react to immune challenges the same way a person does, Tinkelenberg says, because of other factors, such as RNA. “Human antibody diversity is generated at many levels,” he says.

Enumeral’s technology isolates individual antibody-producing cells from blood and other tissue samples and houses them in tiny chambers on a device that looks like a standard laboratory slide. Each device presently holds up to 250,000 cells. Scientists can introduce “antigens”—substances that provoke immune responses—to the cell chambers and then measure the antibodies that each cell produces in response. “What you have is a sealed reaction chamber in a sense,” Tinkelenberg explains.

The company’s technology, as its name implies, is quantitative. It allows scientists to measure how much of an antibody an individual cell is secreting per second, for example, and to estimate its “affinity”—or its stickiness—to antigens associated with different diseases. It’s faster than other cell-screening techniques, and therefore more economical, but that’s not really the point, says John Rydzewski executive chairman of the board for Enumeral. “The mere fact that you’re doing it in a human system is what’s important. The human system created something that might never be created anywhere else.”

Enumeral’s executive team offers a mix of expertise in biology, genetics, engineering, and entrepreneurship. Rydzewski is a former investment banker with a specialty in health care finance. Tinkelenberg got his Ph.D. in molecular genetics from The Rockefeller University in New York and worked as a research scientist at Columbia University before transitioning into the world of life sciences venture capital. And co-founder Barry Buckland, who heads Enumeral’s scientific advisory board, is a veteran of Merck (NYSE: MRK), where he oversaw the launch of several best-selling vaccines.

Enumeral, which maintains executive offices in New York City and an R&D lab in Cambridge, plans to develop some internal drug candidates itself, while also licensing its technology to other companies. Tinkelenberg says Enumeral is pursuing opportunities in respiratory infectious diseases, neurology, oncology, inflammatory diseases, and autoimmune diseases. The company’s initial financing is enough to sustain it through 2013, Rydzewski says.

Rydzewski and Tinkelenberg are confident that as they get out and explain Enumeral’s approach to Big Pharma decision makers, they’ll find partners eager to try the company’s technology. “The dialogue around how to understand the big questions is moving towards ‘What can we learn about humans?’” Tinkelenberg says. “Our timing is good because we’re beginning to tap into that shift in how people think.”

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