Precision therapeutics hold great promise in the fight against cancer and autoimmune diseases. One Singapore startup is harnessing novel technologies to bring such potentially transformative treatments to patients.
Hummingbirds have long fascinated scientists with their unparalleled agility and precision. The world’s smallest bird is uniquely equipped to process visual information from all directions as they hone in on specific nectar sources.
Inspired by its namesake, biotech company Hummingbird Bioscience is using a novel approach to systematically sieve through enormous amounts of data, identifying the most potent antibodies and using them to precisely engineer drugs for cancer and autoimmune diseases.
The company has developed a proprietary Rational Antibody Discovery (RAD) platform, which uses a data-driven, computational approach to identify epitopes – specific protein segments to which antibodies can bind. The platform can then more precisely select the optimal area for a drug to bind.
This approach differs from the traditional antibody discovery process which relies on trial and error to generate an antibody binding to the desired protein segments.
“Our focus is on ‘hard targets’, the many disease-associated proteins that have not been successfully drugged. These yet undrugged targets are biologically validated in many hard-to-treat diseases that are some of the leading causes of death around the world,” explained Dr Jerome Boyd-Kirkup, the company’s Chief Scientific Officer.
Developing a strong pipeline
Through the RAD platform, Hummingbird Bioscience has developed HMBD-001, an antibody targeting the optimal part of HER3, a protein which drives tumour growth and resistance against cancer. HER3 is present in cancers affecting organs like the lungs and breast. HMBD-001 is undergoing clinical trials through a partnership with Cancer Research UK.
How Hummingbird Bioscience’s HMBD-001 antibody works.
The second drug is HMBD-002, an antibody which enhances the ability of immune cells to fight these solid tumours. It is undergoing clinical trials in collaboration with pharmaceutical giant Merck's antibody drug, pembrolizumab.
More drug candidates are in the pipeline. “Notably, we have an antibody-drug conjugate that we are starting to see really interesting preclinical data for, and this is probably the third programme we will move into the clinic,” said Dr Boyd-Kirkup.
Another treatment that Hummingbird Bioscience brought to clinical trials is a COVID-19 antibody. This COVID-19 antibody was the result of a multi-institutional effort in Singapore, spanning academia and industry.
(Left) Dr Piers Ingram and (right) Dr Jerome Boyd-Kirkup were joined by Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Mr Heng Swee Keat at the opening ceremony of Hummingbird Bioscience’s labs and offices in September 2022.
Starting up in Singapore
It was at a chance meeting during an Imperial College alumni drinks event in Shanghai more than seven years ago that Dr Boyd-Kirkup and co-founder Dr Piers Ingram discovered their shared interest in drug discovery.
The two scientists in the room full of finance professionals started chatting – and Hummingbird Bioscience was born in 2015.
They picked Singapore as a base because “being (here) allows us to move quickly and collaborate with key partners in the biomedical ecosystem”, noted Dr Boyd-Kirkup.
Biomedical sciences, which accounted for almost 3.3 per cent of Singapore’s gross domestic product in 2022, is a key pillar of the city-state’s manufacturing sector. The Asian financial hub is home to over 40 therapeutic biotech companies, which collectively raised more than S$860 million in 2021.
In its fledgling stage, Hummingbird Bioscience received two grants from SPRING Singapore. Other early investors include Decheng Capital, Heritas Capital and Mirae Asset Venture Investment.
“Every start-up entrepreneur will tell you that the first dollars are the hardest, and the initial support was crucial for us to make certain investments and reach growth milestones, as well as signal to other investors that due diligence had been conducted on the company,” said Dr Boyd-Kirkup.
With drug discovery and development being a multi-million-dollar effort, financing remains high on the priority list. This has kept the biotech on its toes. “Top of our mind is making sure that we execute against our plans to provide assurance to our investors and supporters that the money invested is creating value,” he added.
As of September 2022, the start-up has raised over US$150 million in funding. Its US$125 million Series C round was led by life science investor Novo Holdings and included investors like EDBI, the corporate investment arm of Singapore’s Economic Development Board.
Before its investment in May 2021, EDB had provided support in other forms, facilitating an introduction between Hummingbird Bioscience and California-based pharmaceutical giant Amgen. This led to a collaboration between the two parties to co-discover novel antibody therapies.
The funding has enabled the company to set up a 40,000 sq ft facility at Science Park. It comprises more than 10 state-of-the-art laboratories for biotherapeutics research, ranging in functions from pharmacology and mass spectrometry to genomics and microbiology.
Dr Jerome Boyd-Kirkup with Deputy Prime Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat sharing about Hummingbird Bioscience’s new facilities at the opening ceremony for its labs and offices in September 2022.
The genomics lab, one of more than 10 labs in Hummingbird Bioscience's facilities, focuses on genomic profiling and bioinformatics analysis including target validation and patient sample data analysis.
It takes a village to make a drug
Hummingbird Bioscience has also expanded its team to about 150 people from around 15 nations.