Orna Therapeutics Circles Success With $100 Million Launch

Orna CEO

Orna Chief Executive Officer Thomas Barnes pictured above. 

Orna Therapeutics and circular RNA exploded onto the biotech scene this morning with $100 million in financing, including $80 million in series A, with an innovative platform backed by a robust group of investors and strategic advisors.

Orna, which began as an academic query at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is a biotechnology company creating fully engineered circular RNA, or O-shaped RNA therapies for the treatment of cancer, autoimmune, and genetic disorders.

 “It was really more of an academic question: can one make circular RNA, and if one could, could one make it express? It was less about a deliberate drive toward a company and more a classic sort of academic question coming out of MIT,” said Orna Chief Executive Officer, Thomas Barnes, Ph.D.

Then, Cambridge-based health care investment firm MPM Capital came along to support the vision: That RNA shaped in a circle could be effective as a treatment and mitigate some of the challenges involved in linear RNA.

As circular RNA is more compact than linear, it could be quite effective as a delivery vehicle for small compounds.

Barnes shared what he believes to be the key advantages of Orna’s technological platform.

“Our circles are always full length. As a result, our process is very scaleable, very cost-efficient, it’s very elegant, and it’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to progress so quickly over this past year to generate the kind of data that has attracted this really amazing set of investors. Think about bringing all of the great advances that have been seen in engineered cell therapy, but now into patients administered not as a cell, but as something much more like a traditional drug with traditional dose-response and much better safety profile,” he said.

Along with MPM, the strategic advisors supporting Orna’s mission include Kite, a Gilead Company, Bristol Myers Squibb, Astellas Venture Management, and Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research - comprising a significant amount of cell therapy expertise.  

“We felt that RNA is now the right time. I would say we generally invest in new technologies that we see there is really an opportunity for product development. Not something that is so early that it takes 10 years or 20 years to get to a patient. But at a time when the technology has really showed true promise for product development and patient benefit,” said Ansbert Gadicke, M.D., co-founder and Managing Director of MPM Capital and Orna Board Chair.

Barnes laid out the company’s strategy, and it is clear that the Orna team is looking forward to seeing just how far this platform can take them.

“The most important thing we’re trying to do is to build value - to create value, for patients, for ourselves, and for our investors, so the strategy follows behind that goal. We want to get into the clinic as quickly as possible, but at the same time, we want to explore the breadth of this wonderful platform that we have created,” he said. “What we want to do primarily is to build out a series of programs, on the one hand targeting immune cells which may have an application in immuno-oncology, and may also have application in autoimmune disease. At the same time, using a different delivery solution to look at diseases of the liver for example, or regenerative medicine applications.” 

Barnes praised Orna’s backers as “a very strong roster of strategic investors, very product-focused investors. I think that’s a strong differentiator, a great plus for us, to keep us focused on what’s important, at our speed. A lot of small companies don’t really have the council, the advice of major pharma. It’s a huge advantage to have that.”  

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