Chicago biotech: Seven players advancing the industry

Chicago biotech companies

The biotech ecosystem in the Chicago area is gaining traction due to significant investments, government support, and a robust academic infrastructure. Chicago, the third-largest city in the U.S. by population, hosts around 185 pharma companies and related life-sciences businesses, with an increasing number of biotech firms setting up operations in the region.

The presence in the area of established companies like Abbott Laboratories, AbbVie, and Baxter International, alongside rising startups like Vanqua Bio, represents the region’s potential in the biotech sector. Here are seven biotech companies based in Chicago to put on your radar.

Table of contents

    Emalex Biosciences

    Founded by Paragon Biosciences, Emalex Biosciences is developing treatments for central nervous system disorders and neurological disorders, notably Tourette syndrome.

    Ecopipam, Emalex’s lead investigational drug, represents a new class of treatment as a dopamine-1 receptor antagonist. This novel approach contrasts with existing therapies for Tourette syndrome that target the dopamine-2 receptor. Ecopipam’s development is geared towards providing a safer and more effective treatment for Tourette syndrome, showing promise in reducing motor and phonic tics without the common adverse effects associated with antipsychotics.

    Emalex Biosciences initiated a phase 3 clinical trial in March 2023. This trial follows positive results from the Phase 2b D1AMOND study, which underscored ecopipam’s potential in reducing tics compared to placebo. Additionally, in October 2023, Emalex released findings from a 12-month open-label extension study, further validating ecopipam’s safety and sustained efficacy with a significant reduction of motor and vocal tics.

    Financially, Emalex closed a significant $250 million Series D funding round in November 2022.

    Flashpoint Therapeutics

    Flashpoint Therapeutics specializes in the development of nanotherapeutics, focusing on precise delivery systems that combine RNA, DNA, and peptide payloads to targeted cells, optimizing their therapeutic effect. Their drug discovery approach utilizes nanoscale architecture, aiming to transform the effectiveness of treatment components from ineffectual to curative. Their technology has shown promise in enhancing the efficacy of cancer immunotherapies and other treatment modalities.

    The Chicago-based biotech company recently announced a $10 million seed financing round, to advance its oncology therapeutic candidate and develop its nanotechnology platform further. This funding will support the progression of their first oncology candidate, the selection of a second development candidate, and the enhancement of their platform for developing multi-targeted RNA, CRISPR, and peptide therapeutics.

    Flashpoint’s technology has been validated in various in vivo models, demonstrating its potential to overcome current therapeutic limitations by delivering therapeutic components in precise ratios and optimized configurations to induce effective immune responses against tumors. Their initial focus is on cancer immunotherapy, aiming to develop treatments that deliver precise combinations of immune stimulatory molecules to induce a robust anti-tumor response​.

    MAIA Biotechnology

    Based in Chicago, MAIA Biotechnology is a biotech company focused on the development of targeted immunotherapies for cancer, particularly through its lead program, THIO, aimed at treating non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) with telomerase-positive cancer cells. Their research emphasizes telomere-targeting agents, which could potentially improve treatment efficacy and patient outcomes in cancer therapy. THIO targets cancer cells by integrating into their telomeres, structures protecting chromosome ends, essential for cell division. Telomerase, active in most cancers, inadvertently incorporates THIO into telomeres, damaging their protective function, causing cancer cell death.

    MAIA recently completed the enrollment for its THIO-101 phase 2 clinical trial in NSCLC, with topline data expected in the latter half of 2024. This trial assesses the efficacy of THIO in combination with the immune checkpoint inhibitor cemiplimab, specifically targeting advanced NSCLC patients who have progressed beyond first-line treatments. Early results have shown promising levels of disease control and response rates, indicating potential as a new standard of care in NSCLC treatment.

    Moreover, MAIA is advancing its research into second-generation telomere-targeting agents derived from lipid-modified THIO molecules, aiming for improved specificity and anticancer activity compared to the first-generation compound.

    Siwa Therapeutics

    Siwa Therapeutics is a biopharmaceutical company focused on developing therapies that target senescent cells and cancer. Their leading compound, SIWA318H, is an antibody that targets advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are associated with aging and cancer progression. Recent preclinical studies have shown promising results, particularly against pancreatic cancer, where SIWA318H was effective in reducing tumor growth and increasing survival rates in mouse models.

    The study published by Nature details how the antibody SIWA318H targets and effectively treats pancreatic cancer in preclinical models. SIWA318H specifically binds to and removes senescent cells within pancreatic tumors, leading to slower tumor growth and increased rates of complete remission. This research shows SIWA318H’s potential as a novel therapeutic for pancreatic cancer by altering the tumor microenvironment and reducing senescent cells that contribute to tumor growth and therapy resistance.

    The research conducted by SIWA Therapeutics, in collaboration with the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), could be crucial in treating aggressive cancers like pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). Looking forward, their approach might offer a new strategy for treating these diseases.

    TRACT Therapeutics

    TRACT Therapeutics is developing TregCel, a therapeutic platform that leverages the patient’s own regulatory T cells to treat solid organ transplant recipients and individuals with autoimmune disorders. This innovative approach aims to establish immune tolerance and reduce the reliance on long-term immunosuppressive medications, which can have serious side effects.

    The Chicago-based biotech company has shown early clinical success, particularly with a phase 1 clinical trial in kidney transplant patients demonstrating safety and normal biopsies over two years without signs of rejection.

    Additionally, TRACT Therapeutics has established a strategic partnership with Taiwan Bio Therapeutics to advance a phase 2 trial in living donor kidney transplant. This collaboration represents a significant step in bringing their cell therapy platform to market, in both autoimmune and transplantation sectors. The collaboration will initiate a phase 2 clinical trial to study the reduction of immunosuppressant drugs in living donor kidney transplant recipients in the U.S. and Taiwan. This partnership combines Taiwan Bio’s expertise in cellular therapy manufacturing with TRACT’s regulatory T cell therapy platform.

    Vanqua Bio

    The biotech company founded in 2019 and based in Chicago, specializes in developing treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. Their lead program is VQ-101, a small molecule designed to activate glucocerebrosidase (GCase), particularly targeting Parkinson’s disease (PD) and Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB), a type of progressive dementia marked by the accumulation of Lewy bodies, abnormal deposits of the protein alpha-synuclein, in brain cells. The company’s approach is based on utilizing patient-derived neuronal cells for drug discovery and development.

    VQ-101 aims to address the genetic link between GBA1 gene mutations and lysosomal dysfunction seen in PD. About 10% of PD patients, particularly those with early-onset and rapidly progressing forms of the disease, present these mutations. The therapeutic hypothesis of Vanqua Bio posits that activating GCase with small molecule agents like VQ-101 can restore lysosomal function, prevent the build-up of harmful proteins like alpha-synuclein, and thus mitigate neurodegeneration.

    Furthermore, Vanqua Bio is exploring the potential of VQ-101 in treating idiopathic PD and GBA-DLB, given the shared pathological features across these conditions. Beyond VQ-101, the company is investigating the role of the complement system, specifically targeting the C5aR1 receptor, to manage inflammation associated with various neurodegenerative and peripheral inflammatory diseases.

    Vanqua Bio is entering clinical development for VQ-101 in 2024, following promising preclinical results that demonstrated its potential in activating GCase across various models and species, and its safety profile. 

    Xeris Biopharma

    Xeris Biopharma is focused on developing and commercializing innovative therapies across various therapeutic areas, including endocrinology, neurology, and gastroenterology. 

    The company’s product pipeline includes three commercially available products: Gvoke, a liquid glucagon for severe hypoglycemia; Keveyis, the only Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved therapy for primary periodic paralysis; and Recorlev, for treating endogenous Cushing’s syndrome. Xeris is also exploring new indications and uses for these products and developing additional products leveraging their proprietary XeriSol and XeriJect formulation technology platforms. These platforms allow for high drug loadings and enable small-volume subcutaneous injections, which can significantly improve drug delivery and reduce treatment burdens.

    Financially, the Chicago-based biotech company reported a net product revenue of $164 million in 2023, with a 2024 revenue projection in the range of $170 million to $200 million by year-end.

    Recent developments include the exclusive worldwide license agreement with Amgen to develop, manufacture, and commercialize a subcutaneous formulation of teprotumumab using Xeris’ XeriJect technology. This collaboration focuses on addressing Thyroid Eye Disease (TED), aiming to enhance patient treatment experiences. Xeris could receive up to $75 million in development and regulatory milestones, plus sales-based milestones and royalties on future sales of TEPEZZA using XeriJect technology.

    Chicago biotech ecosystem building momentum

    The strengths of the Chicago biotech ecosystem include substantial investment capital, with the region ranking high in job creation, National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, patents, and venture capital funding. The availability of high-quality talent and state-of-the-art facilities, like the new wet lab spaces in Lincoln Park, further bolster the area’s attractiveness for biotech firms. The collaborative environment fostered by academic institutions like Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, which feed the startup ecosystem, is a significant asset too.

    However, challenges remain in fully realizing the potential of Chicago’s biotech sector. Despite the growth, the ecosystem is still overshadowed by more established biotech hubs like Boston and San Francisco. The area needs to continue building its reputation and attracting more venture capital to compete on a larger scale. Additionally, while government-backed funding initiatives are in place, consistent support and investment are necessary to sustain the growth and development of the biotech companies and sector in Chicago.

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