Amgen-backed Kernal Biologics pops off with $25M for mRNA platform

Kernal Biologics has bagged $25 million to advance its oncology messenger RNA (mRNA) tech, with backing from Big Pharma Amgen—and a former Bristol Myers Squibb leader joining the biotech’s exec team.

The series A financing round was led by Hummingbird Ventures, a global capital fund that manages more than $500 million in assets, with participation from Amgen Ventures—an active investor in emerging biotechs, with recent investments including ReCode Therapeutics, Celsius Therapeutics, and Code Biotherapeutics. Other participants in Kernal’s series A include HBM Genomics, Civilization Ventures and others.

The biotech has snagged Manfred Kraus, Ph.D., as vice president of research and development. Kraus comes from Big Pharma BMS, where he served as scientific senior director at the Tumor Microenvironment Thematic Research Center. Prior to BMS, Kraus directed Pfizer's Oncology Research Unit, and also has experience working in the oncology departments at AstraZeneca, Merck & Co., and Serono.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech aims to take mRNA beyond COVID-19 and vaccines with its in-development mRNA platform, dubbed mRNA 2.0. The therapeutic focus will be treating cancer patients with as few side effects as possible.

"Kernal Bio is building on the success stories of Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech with legacy mRNA technologies,” said Firat Ileri, managing partner of Hummingbird Ventures, who also joined Kernal’s board in tandem with the funding round. 

The $25 million financing will go toward extending the platform and support the filing of an application that would allow Kernal to begin testing immuno-oncology candidate KR-335 in humans.

So how does it work? In COVID-19 vaccines, mRNA targets antigens that are expressed by healthy cells as well as diseased cells. The mRNA 2.0 platform has greater selectivity, allowing Kernal to develop treatments whose potency can be dialed up without harming healthy tissues. The company’s tech exploits a flaw in the armor of cancer cells, provided by their ribosomes, which are little molecular machines that read messages from mRNA.

The message induces cell death, and can also train the immune system to recognize what those cancer cells look like to fend off relapse or recurrence in the future.

New Kernal leader Kraus will help expand the mRNA platform and advance lead program KR-335. He will also oversee the expansion of the biotech’s R&D team and the potential advancement of therapeutic programs into the clinic.

Another part of mRNA 2.0, at least for Kernal, is sending it into space. The company participated in an experiment that sent mRNA tech to the International Space Station in October 2020 to undergo tests in microgravity.