Belgian biotech eTheRNA has secured €34M in Series B funding to progress to the clinic its Covid-19 vaccine candidate and cancer immunotherapies made from messenger RNA.
The company’s five existing investors contributed to the round, including Dutch VC firm LSP, and the Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund, based in Germany. Four new investors also contributed — two Chinese firms — Yijing Capital and Grand Decade; one Belgian investor — BNP Paribas Fortis Private Equity; and one US investor — Novalis LifeSciences.
eTheRNA’s lead candidate is a therapeutic mRNA vaccine for melanoma that is currently at phase I/II. The vaccine consists of mRNA molecules encoding tumor antigens along with a combination of three other mRNA molecules designed to activate the immune system. While the mRNA-encoded antigens stimulate immune T cells to attack the tumor, the other mRNA molecule combination activates immune dendritic cells, which increase the strength of the attack.
Similar to many other European biotechs, including the mRNA-focused German biotechs BioNTech and CureVac, the company has joined the Covid-19 vaccine race and is developing an mRNA vaccine to protect against viral infection. While other vaccines are designed to activate B cells — immune cells that produce antibodies against invaders — eTheRNA’s vaccine belongs to an emerging group of vaccines that focus on activating T cells, which are key to remembering the pathogen in future infections.
“Other mRNA approaches are antibody-based vaccines, where much of the broader corona vaccine effort is taking place currently,” Steven Powell, CEO of eTheRNA, told me. “If they induce a strong and neutralizing response, it could stop the viral infection,” he explained, although he cautioned that they have some possible drawbacks.
Antibody responses can decline quickly if not backed up by T helper cells, also known as ‘memory’ cells, and it’s possible that a weak antibody response could actually make Covid-19 worse. Other vaccines in development mostly target the spike protein of the virus responsible for infecting the host cells, which has the potential to mutate more than other viral components, thus increasing the chances of developing resistance.
eTheRNA’s vaccine is targeting a broad section of the viral genome. While this means there are more antigens to develop than for other vaccines, it should protect better against a future mutated version of the virus. “We consider that a strong T cell response could be more likely to induce long-term [immunological] memory,” said Powell.
A T cell-targeting vaccine has other advantages including the ability to induce immunity more quickly and to work even in those already exposed to infection, such as healthcare workers. “The nasal self-administration element of our target product profile fits well with an in-field use,” added Powell.
While the current global situation has strongly affected many companies’ ability to fundraise, that has not been the case for eTheRNA. “The B round was planned from the middle of 2019 when we concluded the first close with internal investors and so was not influenced by the corona pandemic,” said Powell.
“Most of our oncology pipeline is preclinical and therefore has not been impacted… We do however have one cancer trial that is recruiting, and recruitment has of course been difficult, but we are seeing signs now that the rate of recruitment is increasing again,” he added.
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