Geneticist Arthur Tinkelenberg has always been struck by the lack of strategy in scientific research. “Historically it’s been somewhat ad hoc,” he says. “For example, why do we study fruit flies? Because somewhere in the dim past, somebody did something interesting with a fruit fly, and now you have a whole field.”
So when Tinkelenberg was presented with the opportunity to lead New York-based biotech startup Enumeral Biomedical last spring, he jumped at the opportunity. Enumeral is based around technology invented by J. Christopher Love, an associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT who developed a way to measure how the human body responds to infection and disease. Enumeral’s technology, called “protein microengraving,” allows scientists to take cells from people who, say, have survived cancer, and then scrutinize those cells to identify antibodies involved in fighting the disease.
Enumeral’s startup team is marketing the technology as a completely new way to find ideas for innovative drugs—namely by studying real human cells, as opposed to fruit flies, bioengineered mice, or any of the other critters biotech researchers generally use. “We have to find better ways to validate drug candidates, and the way to do that is to start with human-based samples,” Tinkelenberg says.
Although it’s only been around about five months, Enumeral has already piqued the interest of venture capitalists and pharmaceutical companies. It has raised a total of $4.25 million from a group of investors led by Harris & Harris, a New York-based venture capital firm that invests in nanotechnology startups. And Tinkelenberg says the company is in ongoing discussions with potential pharmaceutical partners and hopes to have two to three deals locked up in the first quarter of 2012.
The quest to make drug discovery more human has been a major priority for Big Pharma in recent years. The industry has placed much of its hope in so-called humanized mice, which are rodents that have been engineered to possess fully human immune systems. Scientists expose the mice to human diseases and then extractantibodies 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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