ExeVir bags €23M to take llama-derived COVID-19 drug into clinic

llama
A llama (Alexandre Buisse/Wikimedia Commons)

ExeVir Bio has raised €23 million ($27 million) to advance a llama-derived antibody against COVID-19. The financing, which attracted the support of Fund+ and UCB, follows research showing an approach similar to that used by Ablynx can yield single-domain antibodies (VHHs) that neutralize SARS-CoV-2.

A who’s who of Belgian biopharma has come together to get the project underway. VIB, the institute that spawned VHH biotechs Ablynx, Biotalys and Confo Therapeutics, contributed to a paper about the generation of VHHs against SARS-CoV-2. UCB helped make a lead asset based on the VIB research and produce clinical batches. And Fund+, which backed Ogeda on route to its €500 million takeover by Astellas, led the series A with assists from UCB Ventures, VIB and the Belgian government. 

The result is ExeVir, a biotech with technology spun off from VIB and €23 million to take a lead drug into the clinic by the end of the year. That timeline puts ExeVir well behind the front-runners in the race to get an anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody to market, but the startup and its backers think their VHH approach has advantages.

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VHHs are smaller than human antibodies and, as such, can bind to otherwise inaccessible parts of the virus. ExeVir’s lead asset, VHH72-Fc, binds to an epitope that is found in both SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. VIB generated VHHs against the viruses by immunizing llamas with coronavirus spikes, the proteins that enable the viruses to enter the cells and are the focal point of COVID-19 R&D.

ExeVir has preclinical data showing its VHHs neutralize the pandemic SARS-CoV-2 as well as evidence of their effectiveness against SARS-CoV-1 from in vitro assays. The original VIB research also looked at the effectiveness of VHHs against MERS.
 
The characteristics of VHHs gives them other possible advantages over human antibodies, too. VHHs can be nebulized and given via an inhaler, potentially making them well suited to the treatment of respiratory diseases such as COVID-19. The molecules are also stable enough to cope with prolonged storage. Countries may be able to stockpile VHHs to facilitate rapid responses to future coronavirus outbreaks, sparing them from the impotent early response that made COVID-19 so deadly.

Like developers of anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies such as Regeneron, ExeVir also sees prophylactic uses for its candidates, notably in the ringfencing of outbreaks and protection of healthcare workers. The R&D timeline means VHH72-Fc may get to market after COVID-19 vaccines, though.    

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