A shuttered biotechnology company’s research is getting a second chance months after parent corporation Daiichi Sankyo closed down the cancer drug developer.
Opna Bio, which emerged from stealth Monday with former Plexxikon CEO Gideon Bollag at the helm, will develop Plexxikon’s drugs in tandem with a new program built around technology developed by a Swiss research institute.
When Daiichi acquired Plexxikon for more than $800 million in 2011, the Japanese pharmaceutical giant was eyeing the melanoma treatment vemurafenib, which won Food and Drug Administration approval just five months after the deal was announced.
But in the decade since the acquisition, it became clear to Bollag that Daiichi Sankyo was headed in a different direction in oncology. When the company shut down Plexxikon in January, it cited a decision to “maximize its R&D investment” in antibody drug conjugates, or ADCs — treatments that have recently yielded powerful new therapies and caught the attention of several drugmakers.
“We had a good run,” Bollag said in an interview with BioPharma Dive. “They really wanted to focus on the ADC franchise, and honestly we took advantage of the fact that a number of these projects were looking for a new home.”
Now, Bollag and 14 other employees are continuing that research at Opna’s headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland and at an operations facility in South San Francisco.
A new focus will be exploring the effects of stifling a gene known as the fragile-X mental retardation protein, or FMRP. The company claims that inhibiting FMRP in cancer cells could spur the body’s immune system to go after those cells, even in cases where tumors have proven resistant to immune attacks.
Along with co-founders Douglas Hanahan, a professor emeritus at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, and Joseph Schlessinger, a professor of pharmacology at Yale who helped found Plexxikon, Bollag formed Opna in 2020 with the intention of developing an FMRP-targeting drug.
Opna, in Icelandic, means “unlocking,” much as Bollag and his team imagine blocking FMRP could do to the body’s immune response to cancer.
After Plexxikon shuttered in March, Opna brokered a deal to adopt its previous assets. “Our investors were very interested in diversifying and de-risking the company,” Bollag said.
Opna’s other drugs from Plexxikon include two clinical-stage treatments. One is in a Phase 1/2 clinical trial in combination with ruxolitinib, a JAK inhibitor, to treat a rare bone marrow cancer called myelofibrosis. The other is an experimental drug set to enter a Phase 2 trial by the end of 2023 for solid tumors. Three other drug candidates are in preclinical testing.
Bollag hopes Opna’s focus on FMRP will differentiate his new company from its predecessor.
“Plexxikon lacked unique targets,” Bollag said. “We were competing with the world, using the same targets as other people. That’s what sets Opna apart; we have this target that's unprecedented and we have a pretty big head start on making a drug against it.”
The funding from the Series A round gives the company an operating runway into 2024, he said. Investors included Longitude Capital, Northpond Ventures and Menlo Ventures.