Biotech upstart enGene preps first trial for next-gen 'gene pill' tech

Montreal-based enGene has lined up $11.5 million in venture financing to put its next-gen approach to an inflammatory bowel disease treatment through its first clinical test.

The biotech has been at work developing a biopolymer-based DNA and RNAi delivery technology that can be used to deposit an oral treatment directly into the intestine, with an eye to "turning the gut into a protein factory." Its lead program for EG-12 is targeted at replacing currently used injectable drugs for IBD with a new approach that promises to be far more effective. And it claims that the same technology could be used to develop "gene pills" that can orally deliver protein therapies for the blockbuster diabetes market.

Forbion Capital Partners led the round, with new investors Québec's Fonds de solidarité FTQ and Pharmstandard International coming in. Existing investor Lumira Capital--via its Merck Lumira Biosciences Fund, which led the similar-sized Series A round in 2013--also participated. The new money will go to a Phase I/II study that aims to demonstrate the technology's ability to spur the gut-localized expression of the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10.

EnGene CEO Anthony Cheung tells FierceBiotech that the company started out trying to get genes into the gut, initially turning to viruses--as used by other gene therapy companies. This new polymer-based delivery tech gets the genes that encode proteins into the gut orally, where it breaks down and delivers the targeted therapeutic payload. If it works, this new tactic can bypass the kind of systemic toxicity that an injectable approach can trigger, as Schering-Plough experienced with its work on IL-10. And it promises to be the kind of therapy that can be easier to manufacture.

Cheung is also planning to take this technology and use it to develop a gene pill that can offer an oral approach to developing a long-acting insulin.

Right now enGene has 10 full-timers on the staff, which Cheung says will now swell to 30. And the money should be enough to get through Phase I/II while laying the groundwork for their insulin program.

Dr. Sander van Deventer

"While there has historically been a huge interest in the delivery of RNA in all its forms, nonviral delivery of DNA has surprisingly received little attention," commented Dr. Sander van Deventer, the managing partner of Forbion. "The unique technology of enGene effectively turns the gut into a protein factory, and given the strong genetic relation between IL-10 and ulcerative colitis, we expect EG-12 to provide significant benefit to IBD patients. Moreover, as the technology seems very well suited for oral formulation there is the potential for what is called a 'gene pill.' This novel technology could be used to treat not only IBD, but a much wider range of diseases, including those that are currently treated by parenteral protein replacement therapy. Forbion is very excited to have led this financing round."

- here's the release

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