Six biotech companies in South Korea you should know about

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Biotechs in South Korea

A major player in the machinery, electronics and telecommunications market, South Korea’s growing biotech industry has made headlines over the past few years. Home to hundreds of biopharmaceutical companies, the sector saw ₩2.8 trillion ($2.14 billion) worth of investments pour in, according to 2021 statistics.

One of the largest contract drug developers, Samsung Biologics, headquartered in Incheon, South Korea, alone is worth over $40 billion, and is currently expanding its global market in Europe and the U.S..

As the country looks to diversify its production amid strained relations between the U.S. and China, the biotech industry in South Korea aims to be more self-reliant by developing its own raw materials as opposed to procuring cheaper sources from China, a shift we may possibly observe in the coming years.

While numerous South Korean biotechs have secured funding to advance their products and drug candidates in the past year, here are six companies that are pioneering in the country’s biotech arena.

Table of contents

    Cyrus Therapeutics

    Undruggable targets are called so because they are considered too challenging to be able to bind to a drug molecule. And around 3000 targets are undruggable, making therapeutic studies more restricted. Cyrus Therapeutics is looking to change that.

    With an aim to conquer undruggable targets, the company is focused on targeted protein degradation and antibody recruiting molecules (ARMs) – molecules that are capable of enhancing antibody binding. 

    The company is developing small molecules that target immunosuppression in tumors, which can be administered both as a monotherapy and in combination with other cancer therapies to improve their efficacy. Moreover, the company is applying synthetic lethality in scoping drug targets, specifically for patients with BRCA1/2 mutation. Synthetic lethality occurs when mutations on two genes lead to cell death unlike a mutation in just one gene. Therefore, identifying inactive genes in cancer cells and targeting the other in the pair can be effective in treating certain cancers.

    With seven drug candidates in development and in preclinical stages, Cyrus Therapeutics specializes in therapies for hematological cancers and solid tumors. 

    This South Korea based biotech company was founded in 2019 in Seoul, and has received a total of ₩39 billion ($29.96 million) in funding over two investment rounds. The latest round, which took place in January 2022 and raised $24.1 million, saw participation from various investment firms including Atinum Investment, Paratus Investment and Mirae Asset Capital.

    Gencellmed

    Established in the capital city of Seoul in 2019, Gencellmed is the first startup launched at the New Drug Division at Korea Institute of Radiological & Medical Sciences (KIRAMS). The company is focused on developing oncolytic viruses in an approach to deliver the genes to cancer cells and kill the cells.

    Its Synthetic & Multi-Antigen Retargeting Technology (SMART) platform can be harnessed to target 12 cancer types including pancreatic, breast, ovarian, gastric, prostate as well as breast cancer – the most common type of cancer where 300,590 new cases are expected in the U.S. alone, this year. 

    The engineered molecule is involved in both the local attack against cancer cells as well as the activation of the immune system to in turn fight the cancer cells. The GCM SMART molecule binds to the biomarker on the surface of the target cell and replicates in the cells. As a result, the immune system is activated by which chemokines and cytokines are delivered to the region to attack the cells. 

    The most advanced in clinical research is GCM-101 for the treatment of ovarian cancer which i s currently in the preclinical stage followed by GCM-201 for pancreatic cancer in its discovery and development phase. GCM-101 is not only able to target cancer cells and invade tumors but can also enhance tumor specificity to protect regular cells.

    Last year, Gencellmed was granted a Dual Targeting patent for its platform technology and secured $4.58 million in funding from a series A round. 

    Liveome

    As various biotechs apply the micromiobiome’s therapeutic potential to develop treatments for a number of diseases, Liveome, a South Korean company based in the city of Suwon, joined the bandwagon in 2021.

    Liveome has designed live biotherapeutic products (LBP), which are biological products that contain live organisms. In its pipeline, the company is advancing two drug candidates, E-LBP and N-LBP – both in preclinical stages – with a particular focus on inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and cancer therapies.

    As part of its IBD program, the company’s treatment aims to target Crohn’s disease, which is characterized by inflammation in the digestive tract, and ulcerative colitis, inflammation in the large intestine. As current treatment challenges exist, as drugs have a limited drug response, high recurrence rate as well as side effects, Liveome’s drug E-LBP consists of high-efficiency therapeutic strains that can continuously express the therapeutic target in the intestine.

    Furthermore, its N-LBP platform has been developed as a combination therapy to treat cancer. Anti-cancer strains have been selected from Liveome’s immunomodulatory libraries to maximize tumor suppression of cancer drugs in the microenvironment. 

     Last year, Liveome raised ₩7 billion ($5.345 million) in a series A funding round led by Lindeman Asia Investment.

    NuriBio

    As the global polymerase chain reaction (PCR) industry is set to hit $29.22 billion by 2029, NuriBio aims to contribute to the boom. Headquartered in the city of Anyang in South Korea, the biotech company’s PROMER technology, an ultra-specific DNA amplification platform for real-time PCR, is composed of a hybrid primer. It has a primer – which serves as the starting point for DNA synthesis – and the probe – which identifies target sequences.

    With the ability to detect over four targets with the help of fluorophores, PROMER can differentiate between point mutations and mRNA, and has a detection limit of up to 0.01%. Powered by PROMER, is the company’s KRAS mutation detection kit Ctrl. KRAS mutation is found in certain types of cancer – including non-small cell lung cancer, colorectal cancer, and pancreatic cancer – where the KRAS oncogene is mutated.

    The mutation detection kit is said to accurately detect KRAS codon mutations on the same location using only four wells and distinguish 12 kinds of point mutations.

    Set up in 2014, NuriBio has previously secured  $3.6 million in a series A funding round as well as ₩1.8 billion ($1.37 million) from a government R&D grant. The company often partners with U.S.-based institute Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and German multinational Bayer and has collaborated on R&D projects with Rutgers University in the U.S. and the University of Basel in Switzerland. 

    SeaWith

    Set to make its mark in the South Korean synthetic biology industry this year, SeaWith is cultivating slaughter-free meat from animal cell cultures. But unlike other cultured meat companies that use fetal bovine serum (FBS) as a growth supplement, Seawith has opted for a more cost-effective approach. One that involves the use of seaweed.

    Replacing FBS by 80%, the company’s seaweed-based culture medium is fed to the cells which aid in the growth of the cells. SeaWith has created a seaweed scaffold that allows the cells to form a well-defined tissue structure. The cells are then incubated, and meat is produced, which is said to be on par with farmed meat with regard to thickness and texture.

    A member of South Korea’s Tech Incubator Program for Startups, the biotech company is looking to take its product, Welldone, to commercial scale soon.

    Founded four years ago in the city of Daegu, the company was recently financed $5.6 million in a series A round that took place in 2022. Its most recent investors are Mint Venture Partners and Dayli Partners.

    Vasthera

    The leading cause of death globally, cardiovascular diseases take around 17.9 million lives each year, according to the World Health Organization. With a mission to improve vascular function, Seoul-based Vasthera has discovered the potential of peroxiredoxin (Prx), a natural antioxidant enzyme as a modulator of receptor signaling, which is often silenced in clogged arteries, cancer cells as well as regions of the brain associated with neurodegeneration. 

    The inactivation of Prx is due to elevated levels of hydrogen peroxide during inflammation. Vasthera found that mimicking the catalytic activity of Prx can target inflammatory conditions. The company’s drug discovery platform Redoxizyme does exactly that. By developing diverse nanozymes that can take on the role of Prx, it can regulate hydrogen peroxide in cells. The biopharma has three programs in its pipeline. Most advanced in studies is VTA-04 to tackle pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). PAH, a rare heart condition, occurs when the increased proliferation of pulmonary artery smooth muscle cells leads to pulmonary vascular remodeling. VTA-04 normalizes injured pulmonary arteries by regulating the number of pulmonary artery smooth muscle cells.

    The company is also progressing VTC-05 for the treatment of triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) and VTN-04 for neurodegenerative disease.

    This year’s winner of the prize of Minister (The Ministry of SMEs and Startups) award  at the 2022 Korea Business Incubation Association Awards, the biotech company has obtained  ₩23.5 billion ($17.94 million)  in funding over two rounds. The most recent round saw participation from firms like Daesung Private Equity and Medytox Venture Investment among others, in 2022.

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