Massachusetts is the hotbed of biotech innovation. Companies here are known for making life-saving cancer drugs, one-time therapies that heal genetic diseases, and world-saving COVID-19 vaccines. Yet despite those enormous strides in improving human health, surprisingly few of these medical innovations have made their way into veterinary clinics.
Juergen Horn, the founder and chief executive of Invetx, hopes to change that. On Tuesday, the Boston startup said it raised $60.5 million in a series B financing round to develop monoclonal antibody therapies for “chronic and serious diseases in dogs and cats.”
The race to develop the first antibody therapies helped birth the biotech industry more than four decades ago. Today, there are more than 100 antibody drugs approved for humans in the United States designed to treat a range of conditions that include cancer, immune diseases, and COVID-19. But so far there are only two antibody drugs approved for pets in the United States. “It is still a novelty today,” Horn said.
Invetx is one of a small but growing number of biotech startups looking to make medicines like antibodies and gene therapies for animals. Americans spent $123.6 billion on their pets in 2021, a 36 percent increase since 2018, according to the American Pet Products Association. Invetx’s investors hope to cash in on the country’s growing desire to improve the health of our furry companions.
“Pet ownership is rising, people regard their pets as family members, and there is a high willingness to pay,” said Jessica Alston, a partner at F-Prime Capital, a health and technology focused investment firm that co-led Invetx’s new financing.
Antibody drugs are produced in large vats of engineered cells, and they’re not cheap: the therapies often cost thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars a year. The market for them was greater than $186 billion in 2021, and is projected to grow to $445 billion by 2028, according to a report from Global Market Insights.
Horn, a veterinarian by training, founded Invetx in 2018 after his previous employer, Nextvet Biopharma, was acquired by Zoetis for $85 million the year prior. Nextvet also designed antibody therapies for pets. Today, Zoetis sells the only two antibody therapies for pets in the United States: Cytopoint, which is used to treat allergic itchiness in dogs, and Solensia, which was approved in January to treat osteoarthritic pain in cats.
Horn said he thinks antibody therapies, which must be given as injections, will be a welcome alternative to pills that people often have to force feed to their pets. “Owners just can’t do it, and even if they can, it destroys the human-animal bond,” he said. Cytopoint is a monthly injection, but Invetx has filed patents on a technology to make antibody therapies that last longer in the body, with the goal of only needing injections every three months.
Invetx has a modest office in Boston and a small lab in Newton, but Horn said most of its work is outsourced. The startup partners with AbCellera Biologics in Vancouver and Twist Bioscience in South San Francisco to discover and design its antibody therapies, and with the Chinese firm WuXi Biologics to manufacture the therapies in the United States.
Horn won’t disclose specific diseases that Invetx is focused on, but his firm is looking at a broad array of conditions including allergic dermatitis, chronic pain, diabetes, endocrinology, oncology, and osteoarthritis. “That is not an exhaustive list of what we are doing, but some examples of areas that we find interesting,” he said.
The firm hopes to make its drugs relatively inexpensively and quickly by piggybacking on the work of pharma companies. One way the firm will cut costs is by focusing on drug targets already validated in human biology, and simply making new antibodies catered to the canine or feline versions of those targets. “So the billions and billions that big pharma pumps into the discovery of new targets, we just skip that,” Horn said.
Treating some animal diseases may eventually require more fundamental research, but that will not be a focus for the company initially. “Why go after the really hard stuff when there is still so much low hanging fruit available,” Horn said.
Testing the drugs is less costly and faster, too, since the company can skip tests in lab animals and study its drugs directly in cats or dogs. Those studies are smaller than many human clinical trials, and the doses of drug needed for most pets is smaller than human-size, too, Horn said.
“We are looking at costs of less than $20 million from discovery to approval,” he said, adding the company could have its first product approved as early as 2025. Human therapies, in contrast, can take more than a decade to develop and easily cost hundreds of millions or more to design, test, and commercialize.
Alston expects biotech companies focused on animal health to become more common in the coming years. “There is a huge innovation gap between human health and animal medicine,” she said. “And I think we are at a point in time where we can start translating those advances to companion animals.”