Funding in hand, Singapore’s Hummingbird targets antibody push

Singapore cityscape

On a Singapore street lined on one side with facades of traditional shop houses that are home to restaurants and boutiques and on other by the iconic Raffles Hotel, no one could fault Hummingbird Bioscience on location.

Fresh from an oncology antibody pact with Sanofi ($SNY), the key now, as chief scientific officer and co-founder Jerome Boyd-Kirkup said in an interview with FiercePharmaAsia, is to focus fully on the science for two years, after launching the company with cash from friends and family and a few interested colleagues.

Boyd-Kirkup's co-founder and CEO of the company, Piers Ingram, noted that the name was chosen because it’s a great metaphor for a startup: hardworking and agile. They hope that the fledgling Singapore biotech sector continues to grow rapidly, which could add new faces to a semiregular drinks session along the Singapore River, increasing the camaraderie as well as the opportunities to ponder how to stop a tumor in its tracks.

"The ingredients are coming together in Singapore, we just need a little more funding and support sprinkled on top to make it grow," Ingram said.

This is exciting for the Singapore research scene--where public and private money have fed R&D through the university systems and biomedical hubs, but have not produced a wave of spinoffs in biotech.

Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research, or A*STAR, recently said industry-driven projects rose sixfold in the past 5 years to 8,965 at the end of 2015 from 1,547s in 2010, garnering $1.6 billion in spending. The growth, A*STAR said, has also seen 70 startups attract more than $90 million in follow-on funding.

But much of that has been in the marriage between clinical need and devices, local researchers note.

For both of Hummingbird’s founders--who studied in the U.K.--the path to Asia was roundabout and included a marriage in one case. But along the way they met and hired researchers in China and Singapore to advance a computational-based research method that they don't want to call Big Data. They're still working on a name.

For now, Ingram calls it Systems Biology-Driven Drug Discovery, but SBDD is not a widely used acronym just yet.

Ingram said the company has pored over academic research with a sharp focus on HER3 and has developed insights into how to develop systems to select monoclonal antibodies (mAb) to inhibit tumor cell growth by possibly identifying locations where they bind.

Ingram holds a doctorate from Imperial College London and has served stints at R&D units for GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and commercial strategy at Sanofi. He's been in Asia since 2006 and holds an MBA from INSEAD.

Boyd-Kirkup, a doctorate holder from England’s Cambridge University--who also worked at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai--sees drug discovery through computational and systems biology as a path that allows integration of large scale datasets to design and tweak experiments in the lab--a process best done "in-house." The company hopes to soon move into new lab space at the Sing Health campus at Singapore General Hospital.

Hummingbird’s platform includes a computational system called mAbPredict, which is supported by an improved hybridoma system called mAbHits to build antibodies. This approach could pave the way to work on targets in new ways to predict a specific site on a protein to interdict.

There are currently 9 oncology and immuno-oncology targets in development, including in-house projects and partnerships, the two researchers said, without providing details of companies or stages of work--though the company is not near the clinic just yet, Ingram said. The lead mAb candidate, HMBD-001, may reach a Phase I in 2018 to target HER3 for gastric cancers.

Having recently completed a second round of fundraising, the company is rapidly building the team up, which means placing a high premium on finding top-notch scientists, Ingram and Boyd-Kirkup said. This has so far not been a problem in China and Singapore, with many of the now 11-full-time staff and a few part-timers coming to them first.

"Several of our employees came to us," Boyd-Kirkup said, adding they heard through the biotech grapevine of the work. He said that while so-called "turtles"--Chinese researchers returned to the mainland from stints abroad--are in the news, the level of talent on the mainland is "world class."

Image from Brajesh Kumar

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