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EpimAb COO discusses novel antibodies to treat cancer in China

? The Shanghai-based private company is testing bispecific antibodies, a special type of antibody that can link to two different targets.

? Their lead compound EMB-01 seems to be broadly active in various tumor types and will be studied in clinical trials next.

? The company is looking for new partnerships for its early stage pipeline of cancer drugs and may IPO in Hong Kong.

Stephan Lensky is the COO and chief business officer of Shanghai-based EpimAb Biotherapeutics Inc., a biopharmaceutical company developing novel cancer therapies based on bispecific monoclonal antibodies — Y-shaped protein molecules that can bind to two different targets at the same time. For example, one arm of the Y-shaped molecule can link up to T-cells, the body's natural defense against cancers, while the other arm can latch onto cancer cells and serve them up to the T-cells. The result can be effective but unstable. While EpimAb's technology has been able to generate stable bispecific antibodies, it has been challenging.

Lensky spoke to S&P Global Market Intelligence about these challenges and the company's partnership plans. The conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

S&P Global Market Intelligence: How was the company started and why in China?

Stephan Lensky: The company was started in 2015 by Chengbin Wu, who had designed AbbVie Inc.'s bispecific monoclonal antibody platform. After returning to China from the U.S., he worked as the senior vice president of biologics at Shanghai ChemPartner Company Ltd. and then as chief scientific officer with Sunshine CP Guojian (Suzhou) Co., Ltd., which is now part of 3SBio Inc. Eventually, he developed a new bispecific platform called FIT-Ig, and started EpimAb Biotherapeutics based on this platform. There is good talent, and willingness and diligence to actually drive innovation in China. And the Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park in Shanghai is a favorable place for innovative companies.

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Stephan Lensky

Source: EpimAb Biotherapeutics

How do bispecific monoclonal antibodies differ from monoclonal antibodies?

Antibodies are Y-shaped protein molecules produced by the body's immune system to fight foreign substances. Monoclonal antibodies are antibodies that are made by identical immune cells. In a bispecific monoclonal antibody, the two arms of the Y-shaped protein can link to different target areas. The targets can be on the same cell, on two different cells, or on two different molecules. For example, Amgen Inc.'s leukemia therapy Blincyto connects two cells together, while Roche Holding AG unit Genentech's hemophilia drug Hemlibra brings two protein molecules together. There are various possibilities but you first need to have the technology to allow you to combine the binding sites of two antibodies into one antibody molecule.

What are the challenges in developing bispecific antibody drugs?

When you make bispecific antibody drugs, you have to be sure the molecules hold their form together and still maintain their biological activity and stability. The main problem with many of the formats out there is that you have to modify certain parts of the antibody, such as add mutations, or chemical bonds called linkers. All these parts may impact either the biology, the manufacturing, or the stability of the molecule.

What are the advantages of making bispecific antibodies with FIT-Ig technology?

Our format doesn't have these mutations or linkers. This allows the Y-shaped molecule to remain symmetrical which helps the manufacturing aspect of the drug. You also get a stable molecule which retains the biological properties of the two separate antibodies. Amgen's Blincyto has an hour of half-life — the time it takes for the amount of drug to reduce by half in the body — but our molecules have a half-life of around 10 to 15 days so it is far more biologically stable.

What type of cancers will you target with your lead compound EMB-01?

We have tested EMB-01 in various tumor models and it seems to be broadly active in non-small cell lung cancer and liver cancer tumors. We are still investigating what cancers we will study in our upcoming clinical trials.

You signed deals with Kymab Ltd. and Innovent Biologics Inc. in 2016 to co-develop bispecific antibodies. Are there plans for more partnerships?

We have EMB-01 moving towards the clinical, and earlier-stage assets moving towards preclinical development where we are open to discussing partnerships. The first partnerships we made were focused on the technology but we will now change to focus more on the assets. I would hope to expect potential partnership announcements later this year.

Any plans to go public?

Last year EpimAb raised $25 million in series A financing. For a biotech like us who doesn't have revenue, we cannot go public on the Chinese stock market because of the regulations in China. The regulations in Hong Kong are changing so we can do an IPO there. As a biotech, we are relatively small and flexible and can adapt to markets as they change.