Exploring dark antigens: Enara and Boehringer Ingelheim sign oncology partnership

Allie Nawrat 19 January 2021 (Last Updated January 21st, 2021 15:21)

Enara and Boehringer Ingelheim have teamed up to discover and develop novel cancer immunotherapies against overlooked dark antigen targets. How could dark antigens improve the treatment of solid tumour cancers?

Exploring dark antigens: Enara and Boehringer Ingelheim sign oncology partnership
Enara and Boehringer Ingelheim team up on cancer immunotherapies. Credit: Shutterstock.

UK-based Enara Bio has entered into a collaboration with German-headquartered Boehringer Ingelheim. Under the terms of the deal, Enara will be eligible for an upfront payment – the amount of which has not been disclosed – as well as up to €876m in clinical, regulatory and milestone payments.

The partnership focuses on leveraging Enara’s dark antigen discovery platform to research and develop novel targeted cancer immunotherapies, including T cell receptor (TCR) therapies and therapeutic vaccines.

Boehringer Ingelheim will contribute its “rich portfolio of innovative platforms that we can use to target antigens discovered using Enara’s technology”, explains the company’s US head for business development and licensing Scott DeWire.

The collaboration will focus on drug discovery and development for difficult-to-treat lung and gastrointestinal cancers. This is because these are areas of huge unmet medical need, DeWire explains, and thus are two indications of focus for Boehringer Ingelheim in oncology generally. He adds: “We believe Enara Bio’s platform has the capability to further advance efforts in these indications where there is so much need.”

Enara CEO and president Kevin Pojasek is very excited about the partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim. He explains that Enara has “focused on the early-stage nature of the science” of dark antigen targets, but this collaboration “will be a way to convert that science into products that will help patients”.

Enara and dark antigens

Enara’s driving belief, according to Pojasek, is that “the next wave of cancer immunotherapies are going to be driven in part by better targets”. To this end, Enara started looking at the regions of the genome often thought to only contain so-called junk DNA or dark matter. However, it turned out this DNA was actually encoding important information in cancer and other contexts.

Enara built a platform to find dark antigens within this junk DNA, relying on a “combination of bioinformatics and mass spectrometry on primary human tumour tissue”.

“Going back to our driving believe that targets are important, we really view dark antigens as a novel source of targets for cancer immunotherapy [across many tumour types]”, adds Pojasek.

Dark antigens are particularly promising because “they are not driven by mutation, but an epigenetic event”. This means unlike mutation-driven targets where there is a need for personalised therapies to tackle them, dark antigens are shared across patients within a given tumour type, so these targets “are more amenable to a range of immunotherapies”.

In this regard, Pojasek states “this deal starts to satiate the appetite for new targets for groups like Boehringer Ingelheim, which have a variety of targeting platforms”.

Pojasek is also particularly optimistic that dark antigens will make good targets in solid tumours, an area where cell therapies have struggled. This hope will be evaluated in the partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim as lung and gastrointestinal cancers are solid tumours.

The right partnership

Unsurprisingly, central to Boehringer Ingelheim deciding to collaborate with Enara was its expertise and the strength of its platform to identify and validate novel antigens to support drug discovery and development. DeWire notes that the platform offers “a novel and highly differentiated approach that will allow Boehringer Ingelhiem to look beyond the known proteome to identify” new targets.

“Dark antigens represent a large potential repertoire of novel antigens, and it is an aim of the collaboration to identify antigens that are shared across patients and tumour types,” adds DeWise.

Pojasek notes a few reasons why Boehringer Ingelheim was the right partner for Enara. He explains the team was generally impressed with Boehringer Ingelheim’s innovative approach, its hunger for partnerships and its agility.

The partnership works because there is “a nice alignment around the [dark antigen] biology and its potential”, but it also allows Enara to explore its dark antigen platforms for different therapeutic modalities and indications than what is being focused on in this deal.

As a result of this deal and its associated research support and payments, Pojasek adds, “we will be able to not only work on that collaboration and these important indications of interest but fund a range of other work internally, or in partnership with others, that will help turn the promise of the science hopefully into medicines that will help patients”.

“It is a great first [commercial] deal for us and we are really looking forward to seeing where it goes with them,” concludes Pojasek.