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Mutant Yeast Are Cranking Out Pharma's Next Superdrug

Mar 15, 2016   |   by Sarah Zhang   |   WIRED

The offices of Adimab, a biotech company in Lebanon, New Hampshire, smell pleasantly of fresh bread. It’s an olfactory illusion, albeit a welcome one. Nobody is baking anything. The laboratory is lined with beaker after beaker of incubating Saccharomyces cerevisiae—yeast.

So, no crusty treats, but instead Adimab is using all that yeast to cure cancer. And Ebola. And Alzheimer’s and antibiotic-resistant bacteria and practically any disease for which a treatment is so ambitious doctors only dare to dream about it. New Hampshire is far from the biotech hubs of Cambridge and San Diego, but Adimab is quietly becoming a driving force behind one of pharma’s most promising new directions—using the naturally-occurring weapons of the immune system to treat disease.

The baker’s yeast tasked with such high hopes is, of course, not the stuff you buy in foil packets in the supermarket. “We’ve engineered the heck out of the yeast,” says K. Dane Wittrup, a MIT biologist and cofounder of the company. Wittrup and his team have introduced 30 or so genetic tweaks to the fungus, essentially building a synthetic human immune system inside the yeast cells. (But still! They smell like bread.)

Tillman Gerngross
Adimab CEO and Co-Founder Tillman Gerngross. Photo by Tony Luong for WIRED

Instead of doing all yeasty things, these cells are making human proteins—specifically antibodies, proteins that bind to yet other proteins on the surfaces of invading bacteria, viruses, and even cancer cells. Infusing patients directly with synthetic antibodies opens up a new front against disease. Former President Jimmy Carter, for example, recently announced he was cancer-free after treatment that included the antibody therapy Keytruda.

When they work, antibodies give new hope to patients with no other options. And much to the delight of pharma companies, antibodies are more challenging to copy generically. The hard part, though, is finding an antibody that actually works in the first place.

Adimab plays the number game. Scientists there have built a library of 10 billion antibodies—the pond in which pharmaceutical companies can fish. And they have come fishing. Adimab’s 35 partners include the five largest pharma companies in the world—each desperate for new therapies to fill their pipelines. “Every year, we’ve added more and more deals. In the last two to three years, it turned into a complete bonanza,” says Tillman Gerngross, Adimab’s CEO and cofounder, who is also a serial entrepreneur and bioengineer at Dartmouth. (Which explains the New Hampshire location.) Five of Adimab’s antibodies are now in clinical trials with more in the development pipeline.

Antibody therapy might not turn out to be the panacea that bioscientists and physicians hope it’ll be, but the big players trying to make it happen are counting on Adimab.

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