Seattle startup Cyrus inks protein-design deal with immune biotech Selecta worth up to $1.5 billion

Cyrus Bench on laptop
Cyrus Biotechnology has several drug discovery and development partnerships and also sells Cyrus Bench, a software platform for protein engineering. (Cyrus Photo)

Seattle-based Cyrus Biotechnology is entering a protein engineering collaboration with Boston-based Selecta Biosciences that could pull in up to $1.5 billion for the University of Washington spinout. The partnership will support the development of new agents for immune-related conditions, the companies announced this week.

The partnership includes an undisclosed up-front payment and is worth up to $1.5 billion for Cyrus — if the deal hits certain drug discovery, development and sales milestones.

The partnership’s lead program will combine an immune modulating agent developed by Selecta with a protein called IL-2, being engineered by Cyrus.

Cyrus CEO Lucas Nivon. (Cyrus Photo)

Cyrus is enhancing IL-2 through its protein engineering software and through testing at the laboratory bench.

Cyrus can engineer therapeutic proteins with properties such as greater stability in the body, using its software tools originating from the UW’s Institute for Protein Design.

The new partnership adds to several other multi-year deals in progress for Cyrus. These include an ongoing collaboration with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to optimize gene editing techniques based on CRISPR. Cyrus also sells its protein design software, Cyrus Bench, to 33 customers including large pharma companies.

“Our goal is to be the premier partner for computational protein engineering of novel drugs,” CEO Lucas Nivon said in an email to GeekWire.

Under the new collaboration Cyrus will engineer IL-2 to be combined with Selecta’s immune-modulating agent, called ImmTOR.

IL-2 is known to enhance the action of immune cells in the body called regulatory T cells, which can quell an overactive immune system and ease symptoms of autoimmune diseases. Combining IL-2 with ImmTOR bumps up the numbers of these cells in preclinical experiments.

Two other projects are also on deck as part of the collaboration. Those projects also will involve combining engineered proteins with ImmTOR.

“This collaboration is in perfect alignment with our protein design expertise,” Nivon in a statement. “With our current partners, we have demonstrated our ability to redesign existing protein biologics or build them from the ground-up.”

Cyrus is just one of several spinouts from the IPD that leverage software-based drug discovery tools, an area that is gaining increasing investor attention.

Just this week, IPD spinout A-Alpha Bio raised $20 million for its protein-discovery platform. And in July vaccine startup Icosavax went public in an IPO that raised more than $180 million.

IPD has also recently released a powerful tool to predict protein folding, called RoseTTAfold, that rivals another built by Alphabet’s DeepMind, Alphafold2. Both tools astounded the life sciences community, which had long sought a swift computational solution to predicting protein folding.

Protein-folding has been compared to solving three-dimensional puzzles. A protein molecule with the right shape could eliminate a rogue enzyme or tweak the function of an immune cell.

The new advances will not have an immediate effect on the new partnership, Nivon said, as most human drug targets already have known three-dimensional structures. The IPD and DeepMind tools will be incorporated into future versions of Cyrus’ workflows, said Nivon.

“Neither RoseTTA fold or Alphafold2 will have an immediate large impact on drug discovery processes in the next few quarters, but they will have a massive impact, we believe, on new biology and new target discovery and in bringing drugs to clinical trials over the next two years and more,” Nivon told GeekWire.

Selecta’s ImmTOR platform. (Selecta Graphic)

The company is working collaboratively with large pharma companies to develop ways to more effectively use RoseTTAfold, though it is not ready for a formal announcement, said Nivon. (RoseTTA has also been incorporated into the video game Foldit and [email protected] where people can donate computer time to solve protein structures.)

Nivon co-founded Cyrus in 2015 shortly after completing his postdoctoral research at IPD — and he also co-founded the bicycle rental company Pedal Anywhere. Cyrus was fueled by $8 million in venture funding in 2017 and currently has 24 employees. It is also hiring researchers for its biochemistry lab.

Selecta’s ImmTOR platform is being tested in combination with other protein biologics and gene therapies developed by its partners. The company has phase 3 trials for gout, and several agents in late preclinical development or poised to enter phase 1 trials. Selecta raised $70 million when it went public in 2016 and it had about $150 million in cash on hand this May, according to an investor presentation.

“We are fortunate to have this opportunity to optimize and advance our portfolio through the design and generation of innovative protein therapeutics,” said Selecta CEO Carsten Brunn in the statement. “Ultimately this collaboration has the potential to unlock new treatment options and improve the lives of patients who suffer from serious and debilitating diseases.”

ImmTOR combines a nanoparticle with an immune-modulatory drug, rapamycin. Adding a therapeutic protein to the particle makes that protein less likely to be attacked by the immune system. It also makes the protein less likely to be eliminated by the body or prompt a reaction in the patient.

Both Selecta and Cyrus are overcoming this key issue with protein engineering, which is that such proteins can be rejected by the body.

ImmTor turns down the body’s response to a particular protein. And Cyrus can engineer a protein so the body accepts it. “Together we address the same problem in different and entirely additive ways,” Nivon told GeekWire.

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Health/life sciences Startups Cyrus biotechnology David baker Lucas nivon