With the close of its Series A round at €48M ($54M), the tissue models company Engitix has shifted its business from providing drug discovery services to developing its own treatment pipeline for liver diseases.
When Engitix was spun out of University College London in 2016, the startup primarily aimed to provide tissue models to pharmaceutical companies for speeding up drug discovery in liver disease. As the company closes a €48M Series A round and drug discovery partnership with the Milan-based Dompé Farmaceutici this week, Engitix is reinforcing its plans to become a drug developer in its own right.
Drug candidates are typically tested in the lab using cell cultures, which are easy to grow and screened in large numbers. However, they don’t well resemble the structures of human organs, which are made up of cells and the extracellular matrix between them.
Engitix is developing drug testing models that are a closer imitation of real organs than cell cultures. The company sources extracellular matrix scaffolds from diseased and healthy organs from biobanks and grows cells on the scaffold to simulate a real organ.
Many companies are working on ways to screen drug candidates using more informative methods than cell cultures. Earlier this week, the Swiss startup EraCal deployed a high-throughput drug screening model based on zebrafish in a drug discovery collaboration with Novo Nordisk. There are also many firms that bioprint organs using polymer gels and cells.
By using human tissue scaffolds, Engitix’s models can shed light on local conditions influencing the behavior of tumor cells, such as blood vessels and immune cells, known as the microenvironment.
“We have internal knowledge on the microenvironment, and the microenvironment is a key driver in tissue fibrosis and solid tumors,” said Giuseppe Mazza, CEO of Engitix.
The proceeds from Engitix’s recent Series A round will bankroll the development of the company’s tissue models for use in drug discovery. Additionally, the investment will fuel the preclinical development of Engitix’s drug pipeline, with a focus on treating liver diseases including primary sclerosing cholangitis and liver cancer. The first candidate is expected to reach phase I testing by 2025.
In September 2020, Engitix sealed a licensing deal with Takeda to co-develop treatments for advanced liver diseases. Takeda has the commercial rights to any drugs emerging from the project, and Engitix is eligible for up to €441M ($500M) in developmental milestone payments. The indications under investigation include non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which has produced numerous clinical trial failures in the last decade.
In the case of this week’s pact with Dompé, Engitix is doing most of the heavy lifting in drug development. Dompé made an initial investment in Engitix’s Series A round and let Engitix tap into its supercomputing muscle to speed up the drug discovery process. The Italian partner will receive milestone payments as the candidates progress through the pipeline.
“It’s a complex deal, of course, a lot of things we cannot disclose,” acknowledged Mazza. He added that access to Dompé’s arsenal provides Engitix “the next engine to meet our dream, which at the end of the day is to develop therapeutics for patients with tissue fibrosis and solid tumors.”
Engitix now plans to double its workforce to around 80 employees and increase the size of its office and lab facilities. The company will also widen its scope from liver disease to therapeutic areas including lung fibrosis and neurodegenerative disorders.
“We will have an exciting journey in the next couple of years to finalize that validation and start discovery and development,” said Mazza.
Cover image via Elena Resko