mRNA remains in spotlight
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the development of mRNA techology and intensified interest in the new technology, as it shows promise not only in treating infectious diseases but also cancer. Not only have more mRNA startups begun sprouting up in China, but more pharma players are also keen to explore and invest in the technology.
One of them is Junshi Biosciences, which is known for winning the first approval for a homegrown PD-1 antibody. On July 19, it made the biggest deal of the month, committing up to RMB799 million ($123 million) to a joint venture with Hangzhou-based startup Immorna to develop mRNA drugs and vaccines for oncology, infectious diseases and rare diseases.
Junshi will make an initial investment of RMB200 million, of which RMB50 million will be used to subscribe to 50% of the registered capital of the joint venture. Last year, Junshi also invested $1.4 million in Stemirna Therapeutics, which develops mRNA vaccine therapeutics for cancer.
Immorna was founded in 2019 to develop self-replicating and conventional mRNA-based therapeutics and vaccines. The startup raised over RMB100 million from a Series A round in February 2021.
Just one week before the deal with Junshi, Immorna said it will partner with I-Mab Biopharma to develop mRNA-based drugs expressing anti-tumor antibodies in vivo.
Two mRNA biotech companies from Shenzhen also disclosed their financing.
Vaccine and drug developer Innorna said in July that it closed a Series A round to raise serveral hundred million RMB in the first quarter of this year. Last year, the startup also received RMB35 million from vaccine maker Zhifei Biological Products.
Proxybio, a biotech leveraging its own mRNA high-throughput synthesis platform and delivery technology, also closed a seed funding of more than RMB10 million.
Founders of both companies were trained under MIT professor Robert Langer, who is regarded as a towering figure in the mRNA space.
iPSC-based cell therapy emerges
Also standing out in July were three cell therapy developers focusing on iPSC technology .
Juventas Cell Therapy, of Tianjin, completed a Series C round to raise RMB400 million to advance its lead candidate CNCT19. The company boasts three proprietary technology platforms: CAR, iPSC and gene editing.
Neukio Biotherapeutics, a new Shanghai startup that focuses on allogenic cell therapies from the iPSC-CAR-NK axis, also closed a US$40 million angel round financing led by Lilly Asia Ventures. The funds will help the company establish research facilities and support development of allogenic off-the-shelf immune cell technology platforms and therapies. Neukio is headed by former Fosun Kite CEO Richard Wang, who helped the company secure the first CAR-T approval in China.
Shanghai CellOrigin, a company specializing in iPSC-derived innate immune cell therapies, also raised tens of millions of RMB in an angel round. The company is developing therapies to tackle neurodegenerative diseases, cancers and rare diseases. It is expected to submit an IND filing for its lead candidate UniXell DA001 for Parkinson’s diseases.