Sanofi taps Harvard spinout for oral nanobody delivery work

sanofi quebec hq
Sanofi Ventures led a $4 million seed financing in i20 last year. (Sanofi)

Sanofi has teamed up with i2O Therapeutics to create oral nanobody-based medicines. The partners will use i2O’s platform for protecting peptides and proteins to end the need for nanobodies to be given via intravenous or subcutaneous injections.

Nanobodies are therapeutic proteins based on single-domain antibody fragments. Like antibodies, the molecules are typically administered via injections, but advocates of the modality see scope for oral, inhaled and ocular delivery. The belief nanobodies may be suitable for other routes of delivery is underpinned by evidence of the stability of the molecules.

Sanofi bought into the modality in 2018 when it paid almost $5 billion for nanobody pioneer Ablynx. Now, Sanofi has teamed up with i20 to evaluate whether an ionic liquid platform can enable the oral administration of nanobodies.

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Massachusetts-based i20 is built upon ionic liquid technology designed to both protect drugs from the conditions they encounter when given orally and get more of the active substance across the epithelial lining. The harshness of the conditions found in the gastrointestinal tract and the limited ability of large molecules to cross the epithelial lining are two key barriers to oral biologics.

Sanofi Ventures recognized the potential for i20 to address those barriers last year, prompting it to lead a $4 million seed financing in the startup. Later in the year, i20 secured more money from Colorcon Ventures and entered into a collaboration with its parent company. 

The funding equipped i20 to build on the work of Harvard University bioengineer Samir Mitragotri, Ph.D. In 2018, Mitragotri and his collaborators published a paper on the oral delivery of insulin, describing the use of an ionic liquid to protect the diabetes drug from enzymatic degradation and enhance paracellular transport. The work in animal models led to the foundation of i20.