Lori Lyons-Williams has always been drawn to working in oncology. For the former Allergan leader and Neumora president, there are few opportunities more impactful than treating cancer—and tough-to-target solid tumors at that.
So when given the chance to lead a startup with that very focus, she jumped aboard. Abdera Therapeutics launched Thursday with $142 million in combined series A and B funding to advance a fleet of radiopharmaceuticals, with an application to begin human trials slated to go before regulators sometime next year. The series A round was led by Versant Ventures and Amplitude Ventures, with the series B overseen by venBio Partners.
Beyond the allure of leading a cancer-focused company, Lyons-Williams said Abdera's early preclinical data are extremely compelling.
“Having been in a couple of oncology companies on the board side, this is very different in terms of the mechanism of action, and you don't have to squint your eyes to figure out if you had a response or not,” the CEO said in an interview with Fierce Biotech.
The company aims to distinguish itself on two fronts. First, by developing a unique kind of antibody to transport a radiotherapy that will dissolve quicker than existing antibodies, thus limiting toxicities impacting background tissues. Second, Abdera is aiming the platform at a host of new targets separate from the rest of the class. The company’s lead asset, for example, is aimed at delta-like ligand 3 (DLL3), a target often found on small-cell lung cancer and other solid tumors that’s been difficult to treat due to low expression levels.
Adam Judge, Ph.D., co-founder and senior vice president of research, told Fierce Biotech that Abdera builds the pharmacodynamics into the antibody and then just has to swap out binding domains depending on the cancer target, making new assets efficiently producible. So far, the team has seen consistent translation between in vitro antibody construction and performance in rat models, which Judge said was “by design.”
The nature of the platform and its early preclinical hype have elevated expectations that Big Pharma will be queuing up for licensing opportunities. That was one of the major investment draws, says Versant Ventures principal Joel Drewry, Ph.D.
“What is appealing and has been part of our thesis is the reproducibility of this performance,” Drewry said in an interview. “We definitely view this as probably the most partner-able platform out there.”
Lyons-Williams wouldn’t say whether those conversations have already taken flight but said that just like investors, she expects larger pharmas will be captivated by the available data.
But as is the case with any drug developer, real evidence will come in the clinic. Abdera plans to ask regulators to greenlight a phase 1 trial with the DLL3-targeting therapy sometime in 2024. There are four additional targets that Abdera has declared but remain undisclosed.
The sum total of these parts—a validated platform, an experienced chief executive and potential candidates aimed at fresh targets—is a biotech company that investors couldn’t pass up, according to Drewry. There were “natural fears” that arose once Versant committed to leading the round late last year at a time when eye-popping financings dwindled, he explained, but that hesitation receded as backers lined up.
"I think their story really resonated, and it was a lot more of a seamless process than I thought it was going to be,” Drewry added.