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Enlaza gets JP Morgan, Regeneron backing for covalent biologics

Enlaza Therapeutics, a San Diego-based startup, has raised a $100 million Series A round to develop biologic cancer drugs designed to latch onto their targets through covalent bonds.

The new funding announced Tuesday and led by the life sciences investment arm of J.P. Morgan comes two years after the company debuted with a $61 million seed round. The cash should pave the way for the company to begin its first clinical trials.

Enlaza develops covalent drugs, known as such because they tightly bind to proteins instead of bouncing in and out of their targets. Such medicines, which are typically small molecules, have been around for decades and are often discovered accidentally. But relatively recently, the pharmaceutical industry and a number of drug startups have emerged with plans to design covalent therapies more purposefully.

Enlaza is specifically focused on bringing the approach to biologics. With the help of a technology it calls “War-Lock,” the startup introduces proprietary amino acids to protein drugs, an approach that’s designed to form an irreversible bond with a disease target. The company claims this method should lead to more precise and potent medicines and is initially working on cancer drugs, though it may eventually branch out into other therapeutic areas.

“We think there are very clear opportunities in the world of oncology,” CEO Sergio Duron said in an interview. But “ultimately, our goal is to provide better, more efficacious, safer drugs for patients.”

The company’s research remains in early stages. In the year and a half since it emerged from stealth, the Enlaza has begun putting a pipeline together and run some preclinical studies. Duron contends those studies have displayed “the advantages of covalent protein drugs,” but the company is still a few years away from the types of human trials that can more definitively prove its claims.

Duron didn’t say how long the company’s financial runway is, or which diseases or drug targets it’s pursuing first. But Enlaza has grown to employ 45 people and, with the help of the new funding, could add at least 20 more to its workforce. It’s expecting to advance “several development candidates” towards clinical trials as well, Duron said.

“We have a well designed plan in place, and more importantly, are financed to be able to achieve those goals,” Duron said.

J.P. Morgan was joined in the funding round by Amgen Ventures, Alexandria Venture Investments and the newly launched venture arm of Regeneron. Enlaza’s prior backers, such as founding investor Avalon Ventures and Frazier Life Sciences, also participated.

The financing comes amid a recent upswing in biotechnology venture investments following a prolonged downturn. Biotech venture funding surged from $4.9 billion in the fourth quarter of 2023 to $6.5 billion in the first three months of 2024, according to data from J.P. Morgan and DealForma.