AstraZeneca inks respiratory disease mRNA pact with Ethris 

AstraZeneca and Ethris are researching asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

AstraZeneca has expanded its mRNA activities through an agreement with Ethris. The Big Pharma is paying €25 million ($29 million) upfront to work with Ethris on respiratory diseases and secure the option to license the fruits of the collaboration.

Munich, Germany-based Ethris will apply its SNIM RNA technology to the treatment of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. The collaborators think the mRNA platform may enable the replacement, inhibition or augmentation of proteins that play a role in the respiratory diseases—and, in doing so, treat the diseases in ways beyond the abilities of other types of drugs.

“This collaboration complements our respiratory science focused on early intervention and disease modification by adding novel ways to target disease mechanisms that cannot be addressed by other approaches currently in our pipeline,” Bahija Jallal, an EVP at AstraZeneca subsidiary MedImmune, said in a statement.

Ethris’ approach entails making chemical modifications to the building blocks of its candidates to enable them to evade the innate immune system. In doing so, Ethris thinks it can guide drugs past the immune system to deliver mRNA into cells. Once inside, the mRNA interacts with the protein processing machinery to treat the targeted disease.

The challenge of getting RNA molecules to their targets without the use of delivery vehicles that preclude repeat use has held back the field. But the flood of VC and partnership money into the likes of Moderna and Ethris’ compatriots BioNTech and CureVac has raised hopes the sector can overcome these hurdles. AstraZeneca is helping to drive forward the sector through its big, expanding deal with Moderna and now with its smaller hook-up with Ethris. 

Ethris is the lowest-profile of the trio of German mRNA biotechs that are providing a transatlantic counterweight to the juggernaut that is Moderna. Carsten Rudolph, Ph.D., inventor of the SNIM RNA technology, and Christian Plank, Ph.D. founded the biotech in 2009 and struck a deal with Shire four years later. But with early-stage work occupying Ethris since then, the biotech has largely flown under the radar.

The years spent researching the pulmonary delivery of mRNA have now enabled Ethris to pick up another big-name partner. And, in doing so, Ethris has pulled in €25 million to support its own R&D activities. AstraZeneca is also on the hook for research funding, milestones and royalties.

So far, Ethris has taken a treatment for urea cycle disorder ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency up to in vivo proof of concept. Programs targeting cystic fibrosis and ciliopathy are at earlier stages of development. Ethris has financed the work with an undisclosed amount of funding from backers including OrbiMed.