With a $4M federal grant, Lumen jumps into the Covid-19 treatment race

It’s been less than a month since Lumen Bioscience announced a $16 million Series B to engineer spirulina — a nutrient-packed super food — for diseases like traveler’s diarrhea, norovirus and C. difficile colitis. And now, the biotech has pulled in another $4 million to do the same for Covid-19.

The approach is quite similar to other gastrointestinal targets the company is pursuing, co-founders and Brian Finrow and Jim Roberts said. The Seattle-based company is working on a camelid antibody cocktail to combat GI infection common among Covid-19 patients. In a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, a majority of Covid-19 patients showed GI and respiratory symptoms, and 25% had only GI symptoms.

Finrow and Roberts, CEO and CSO respectively, told Endpoints News they saw a “big gap” here — while many drug developers are focused on respiratory therapies, few, if any, are honed in on GI symptoms.

“The clinical consequences of lung infection are obvious. And that’s why most or essentially all existing therapies are targeted at lung infection,” Roberts said.

“There’s just not really good tools for going after diseases of the GI tract. And so the industry — and academic researchers — for lack of tools haven’t done much. But … what we’ve got is a new tool that makes it actually quite straightforward to do this,” Finrow added later.

The financing comes from the US Army Medical Research and Development Command, operating through the Medical Technology Enterprise Consortium. It will fund development of the oral candidate through IND submission, and initial engineering for a new manufacturing plant in Washington state, which will have the capacity to produce 1 billion-plus doses per year.

The goal is to hit the clinic by late spring, according to Roberts. The company is sifting through a panel of 10 to 20 antibodies to find the right combination, which could be altered in the future if the virus mutates. “That’s an advantage of our platform, and it’s very easy for us to swap things in and out like that,” Roberts said.

Lumen began its Covid-19 program at the onset of the pandemic. “This (Seattle) was ground zero for the US … We started thinking about what we might be able to do to help the situation,” Finrow said.

The duo believes they can develop the treatment on a large scale —  and do so inexpensively. Other biologic drugs can cost between $100 to $200 per gram to make, Finrow told Endpoints earlier this month. But spirulina — which is so cheap to grow that people eat it — could “break this cost problem,” he said. The manufacturing system, he added, is as simple as a fish tank with LED lights on the outside.

So far, only two treatments have been granted emergency use authorization to treat Covid-19 in the US: Gilead’s remdesivir and convalescent plasma. The latter has been the center of controversy, with a panel of experts convened by the NIH concluding earlier this month that “there are currently no data from well-controlled, adequately powered randomized clinical trials that demonstrate the efficacy and safety of convalescent plasma for the treatment of COVID-19.” Gilead, on the other hand, said back in June that it would charge US insurers $520 per vial, or $3,120 for a full course of remdesivir.

“Our therapeutics are so inexpensive, that they certainly could be taken as a preventative when you’re at risk, which is virtually all people for the time being,” Roberts said. “And if either route of initial infection is through the GI tract, which it seems to be in many cases, then this would be considered a preventative.”

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