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Waltham startup focuses on engineering antibodies as a bridge to COVID-19 vaccine

Adagio Therapeutics says injections could provide temporary immunity while a longer-lasting treatment is in the works.

Tillman Gerngross is cofounder and chief executive of Adagio Therapeutics.
Tillman Gerngross is cofounder and chief executive of Adagio Therapeutics.

At least 163 potential vaccines have been developed for COVID-19, including about two dozen now in clinical trials, according to the World Health Organization. When one will be approved, however, remains uncertain.

Now, a number of drug companies are trying another approach: bioengineered antibodies that could be injected into people to give them temporary immunity and serve as a bridge to a longer-lasting vaccine.

On Thursday, a Lebanon, N.H., firm that has engineered antibodies for more than 65 pharmaceutical companies, said it has spun out a Waltham company to focus on making monoclonal antibodies that would be injected into people twice a year to protect them against this coronavirus and several related coronaviruses.

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The new firm, Adagio Therapeutics, was launched with $50 million in venture capital and hopes to begin testing the antibodies on healthy humans by the end of the year.

Tillman Gerngross, a Dartmouth College bioengineering professor who is chief executive and cofounder of Adagio and its parent company, Adimab, said he believes that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, won’t be the last coronavirus to leap from animals to humans.

“You can sit here now and take the position that this is never going to happen again,” said Gerngross. “We take the opposite position. It is going to emerge again.”

Several firms, including Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly & Co. and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals of Tarrytown, N.Y., have begun testing antibodies for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19. Cambridge-based Biogen is also working with Vir Biotechnology, the San Francisco biotech headed by Biogen’s former CEO George Scangos, on a similar approach.

The difference between them and the startup, said Gerngross, is that Adagio has engineered highly potent antibodies that it believes will be effective against the coronavirus that caused the current pandemic, another coronavirus that triggered an outbreak in Asia in 2003, and two others now found in bats.

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Assuming he’s right, he said, people would be injected twice a year, and the antibodies would protect more than 90 percent of them for six months. The injections would be particularly useful for people at risk of catching the disease, including health care workers, and individuals with underlying medical problems.

Adagio has a leadership team of eight executives, but should have 20 employees by the end of August, Gerngross said. Financing of the startup was led by Polaris Partners and Mithril Capital, and includes investments by Fidelity, Orbimed Advisors, M28 Capital, GV, and MRL Ventures Fund.









Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com