Hummingbird Bioscience – Intelligent drug development for cancers and beyond

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Hummingbird Bioscience is a biotech startup based in Singapore that focuses on the discovery and early development of oncology drugs, from pre-clinical target validation through to proof-of-concept (Phase II clinical trials).

I had the pleasure of interviewing two of the co-founders, Piers Ingram and Jerome Boyd-Kirkup, a few months back and was intrigued by their passion for cancer therapy.

This article features the passion, vision and achievements of them and their company, Hummingbird Bioscience.

When was Hummingbird Bioscience founded and who are the co-founders?

Piers: Hummingbird Bioscience was officially founded in 2014, even though our ideation process started in 2013. The company was founded by three of us, Jerome, myself and Lan Zhang (based in China). Our team consists of 6 other people and we are looking to hire more as well. The career opportunities at our company can be found here.

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L to R – Jerome and Piers

The company has taken off pretty quickly in less than 2 years and we decided to have a base and focus some of our early efforts here, in Singapore, for various reasons. We also have a lot of activities and collaborations in China as well.

The founding team comes with experience in various backgrounds; Jerome is the most skilled in wet lab work amongst all of us, and Lan and myself have a background in computational and systems biology. Between the three of us, we have had extensive exposure to different tools in systems biology and structural biology.

Jerome: I think that we work well together as we all forsee a promising future with the integration of computational, structural and systems biology with cutting-edge tools in molecular biology. This is the smart way to go about delivering an antibody therapeutic for any disease.

What is the company’s vision & mission? What are your achievements?

The essential focus of the company is to develop novel antibody therapeutics to treat cancer and particularly indications that have a very high unmet need in Asia, including those that have not been traditionally focused on by the MNCs such as gastric cancer, liver cancer, esophageal cancer etc. Part of our intial thinking was that these are areas where we could contribute significantly to new treatments, since the MNCs concentrate more on breast cancer and other cancers with higher burden in the West

From the start we have been developing a couple of key technologies that involve epitope prediction – identification of an optimal region on a disease associated protein to target with an antibody. We have coupled that with further innovation in immunization techniques develop the antibody itself, and have now packaged these together as our core technology platform, which we have now filed a couple of patents to protect.

The technology has progressed very rapidly in the last 18 months and the project HMBD-001 has really been our example project where we have shown that we can produce antibodies that prevent the growth of cancer cells in the laboratory. The HMBD-001 project is currently in late pre-clinical development, targeting an important cell surface protein (RTK) that is implicated in gastric and lung cancer. It is expected to enter Phase I clinical trials in early 2017. Since then we have received a lot of interest from both academic partners and industry in using this development platform for other targets.

We have also launched HMBD-002 and -003 projects concentrating on liver cancer ,and more broadly as immuno-oncology therapeutics – drugs that can stimulate the immune system to fight the cancer itself.

What is your business model?

Our business is based on our expertise in the early stages of drug development up to the pre-clinical proof-of-concept stage, but we are also working with partners who have experience with early clinical development. It is important for us to see our work and projects extend into the clinical stage; but we are careful to draw the boundaries of our business as well. Essentially, our company’s business model is built around our rational antibody design platform, and concentrates on building value through intelligent drug discovery and drug development against oncology targets that are important to the cancers with the greatest umet needs in Asia.

There are many reasons for us choosing Singapore as our base in Asia; there is great talent in this region, it is close to all SEA countries, the CROs are well established and the regulatory environment is stable. There is great science being done in this region, however, if you look at the number of young biotech companies here, it is a fraction of what it should be. We know that Singapore is trying hard to develop its biotech startup ecosystem, and it is a great opportunity for us to be at the forefront of things, doing our part to make the ecosystem thrive. Currently, we also have a laboratory based in China that we outsource our lab work to given the economical costing, but I think we would all like to build our operations in Singapore with the support of the relevant government agencies.

Could you explain your technology? How does ONTarget™, mAbPredict™ and mAbHITS™ lead to the development of an antibody?

Piers: The conventional ways of developing therapeutic antibodies are problematic in the sense that you can’t really control where the antibodies bind; those that are more selective often have difficulty binding.

Our proprietary technology allows us to identify protein targets that are important to particular disease, then predict the specific region on the protein that is involved in the protein function during disease, and further to develop antibody therapeutics that bind that region, inhibit the function and therefore stop the disease.

The ONTarget core technology integrates evidence from a wide range of public and proprietary omics, pre-clinical and clinical efficacy and toxicology data sets to identify high potential oncology targets. ONTarget therefore helps us review an indication and search for targets in a systematic manner. This allows us to select a target that has high potential and will fit well with our rational antibody development technology.

The mAbPredict™ platform is fairly a complex pipeline of insilico modeling that allows us to select epitopes on a target optimized for clinical applications.

Jerome: Our technology is developed with a view to functional therapeutics and not just generating an antibody. So we can generate an antibody that binds where you want it to.

Antibodies are generated against the epitopes identified by mAbPredict™ using a unique immunization and screening technology called mAbHITS™. This finally results in production of high affinity antibodies to the native folded protein that are specific to the epitopes of interest.

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There are lot of studies concentrating on differences in cancers and their therapies based on ethnicity. Do you also work on those studies?

Jerome: Ethnicity differences in diseases is more of an epidemiological question rather than a genetic question. There is some evidence that there is genetic predisposition, however, we feel that the actual cause of the disease is the same at the molecular level, even in patients with different ethnicities within Asia as a whole.

What challenges did you face while setting up your startup?

Piers: We didn’t face any specific challenges other than the ones that all startups face in their initial years.

One of the things that we observed in Asia is that there are pockets of excellence in different parts of Asia and not in one place, so we have to go look for them; whereas, if it were the US, everything would be just around us. The startup ecosystem in Singapore is growing but is still young. We are 10-15 years in the past when we compare to tech startups. Tech startups are far more established in Asia, but the biotech scene is just starting to hear stories of success. On saying that, I would like to acknowledge the fact that we have great collaborators in Singapore and fantastic facilities in China that help us excel in what we do.

How is your company funded?

Our company is funded by a combination of private funding and public funding, including a SPRING TECS proof-of-concept grant in Singapore.

Who are your collaborators/partners?

We have a couple of collaborations in the works with A*STAR and other research institutes in Singapore. We are also in the midst of setting up collaborations with other pharma companies – SMEs and MNCs.

Any advice for biotech startups especially in the drug discovery sector? Do you have a secret formula that will help these startups?

Piers: (Laughs…) There is no secret formula! Be extremely careful in selecting and overseeing CROs, and be aware of the costs involved as well. What we found during our startup journey until now is that you have to deeply understand the biology of what you are working on; just don’t jump to conclusions with targets and start to develop it before you actually validate it. The world is moving rapidy towards precision medicine and that is key to what your doing.

Do you intend to move to other fields apart from oncology?

Jerome: Yes, we do want to extend our focus beyond oncology. Hummingbird’s technology is applicable to many diseases but we want to be careful not to overstretch ourselves beyond our expertise, which is predominantly oncology. If there is a compelling reason for us to move towards other diseases, we will in the future.

Why the name ‘Hummingbird’?

Well, we discussed it as a team; it is a good metaphor for a startup we felt. We are a startup – agile, full of energy, dancing around, and hopefully doing something meaningful! It’s a name that stuck and we like it. It also translates well in Chinese (蜂鸟).

Any advice for young entrepreneurs and founders of other biotech startups? 

Get a good team; a good team is key to success. We see sometimes that there is too much caution with people; we need more people like Mark Zuckerberg to show that you can achieve what you dream of. You don’t need to be 50-something with a lot of expertise to have your own company. If you have the innovation, a product/technology that is attractive and energy to drive a biotech company, then just go for it. Don’t worry about the money involved too much; you can always partner with other companies to achieve your vision.

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Scientist-entrepreneur-manager-journalist: -Co-founder, Author; Former Assistant Editor and Director, Biotechin.Asia, Biotech Media Pte. Ltd.; -Founder & CEO, SciGlo (www.sciglo.com); -Programme Management Officer, SBIC, A*STAR (former Research Fellow). --Sandhya graduated from University of Madras, India (B.Sc Microbiology and M.Sc Biotechnology) and received her Ph.D from the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She worked on oxidative stress in skin, skeletal, adipose tissue and cardiac muscle for a decade from 2006-2016. She is currently working as a Programme Management Officer handling projects and grants at Singapore Bioimaging Consortium (SBIC), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). Earlier to this she was a Research Fellow in the Fat Metabolism and Stem Cell Group at SBIC. Sandhya was also the Vice President and Publicity Chair of A*PECSS (A*STAR Post Doc Society) (2014-2016). Recently she founded a platform for scientists - SciGlo (www.sciglo.com) and is a startup mentor at Vertical VC (Finland). She is an ardent lover of science and enjoys globe trotting and good vegetarian food.