A World-Renowned Immunologist on the Promise and Passion of Senda Biosciences

In the final feature explaining why Senda Biosciences is a Company to Watch, Big4Bio editor Marie Daghlian spoke with Senda Chief Scientific Officer Luke O’Neill about why he joined the company, why he is excited to be a member of Senda’s team, and what we might expect from them in the near future. 

Companies to Watch – Senda Biosciences

by Marie Daghlian

Marie: Why don’t we start by telling me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be the chief scientific officer (CSO) of Senda Biosciences?

Luke O’Neill: Sure. I’m an immunologist, first and foremost. I’ve worked on the immune system for 35 years now, and I’m also a professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. I was on Senda’s board of directors and scientific advisory board. And at the end of last year, it became clear to us that Senda was poised to move further into the field of immunology and needed the in-house expertise of an immunologist. So, they approached me and asked me if I would be interested in the role of CSO, and I jumped at the chance – I was delighted!

Marie: What do you think Senda’s potential is in immunology? What made them decide to focus there?

Senda Chief Scientific Officer Luke O’Neill

Luke O’Neill: What Senda has cracked is a way to target the immune system very precisely through fully programmable medicines, and that opens many possibilities. The immune system is at the heart of many diseases. Clearly infectious diseases are a big category, but equally, there’s autoimmune diseases and oncology. It’s a huge area of interest, both in terms of basic research and also potential therapeutics.

Senda’s nanoparticles, inspired by nature, can get molecules straight to where we want them to go in terms of targeting the immune response. And Senda has generated compelling evidence over the last year or so for all kinds of applications. This includes bringing new vaccines straight to the immune system, which means the potential for better efficacy, especially for infections that affect the mucosa – COVID-19 being a classic example. The vaccines Senda is developing aim to stop the spread of COVID-19, which is a huge goal in the effort to develop better vaccines. And in immuno-oncology— really the hottest area of cancer therapeutics right now – Senda is working to stimulate the immune system to precisely target cancerous cells.

Beyond that, Senda has technologies for getting protein, RNA, DNA and other biomolecules to the relevant cells. On the protein end, Senda is working on oral delivery of GLP-1, which of course is getting massive attention in the obesity arena at the moment. So, the options for Senda are almost limitless.

Marie: So, the therapeutic potential is huge, as you said, and you’ve seen some of the data, it’s working in animal models, is that right?

Luke O’Neill: That’s right. We’ve got validation in animal models of disease and initial validation of safety and efficacy in non-human primates. When you combine all the animal data together, I’m very optimistic it will translate into humans. So, even though it’s preclinical, there’s great potential to treat human disease across the board.

Marie: Senda has said that in two years, you’ll be in the clinic. Do you think that’s a reasonable goal?

Luke O’Neill: I do. I’d even want it to be sooner, to be honest! I’m pretty impatient about trying to help patients as soon as we can. My passion – first and foremost – is in discovery, but I won’t rest until I see these medicines in humans. As far as I’m concerned, it can’t come soon enough. Now obviously you can’t take shortcuts, you’ve got all the usual procedures here to make sure it’s all done in the right way. But certainly, two years would definitely be achievable, in my view.

Marie: Okay. I’m curious about how Senda stands out among Flagship’s universe of many companies that are basically addressing programmability or getting therapies to the right target.

Luke O’Neill: Well, it first shows that Flagship is smart because a key goal across the board is for precise targeting of medicines. If you can get the drug to go exactly where you want it to go, that has a lot of advantages. The dose might be lower, the toxicity might be less, you’re going to increase efficacy… that’s why Flagship focuses on programmable medicines. While each company is using different technology, of course, it’s complementary. And there are many diseases that have few or no treatment options, so we need to unlock this problem of how we treat as many conditions as possible, with efficiency and scale. And Senda is really unique in the way that we’re focusing not just on “within” the cell but also, as I say, on the “to” the cell challenge.

Marie: What can we expect from Senda in the near future?

Luke O’Neill: Since I’ve joined the company, I’ve seen how focused it is. And we’re currently demonstrating the potential of our platform in three key areas. For vaccines, we’re seeking to demonstrate mucosal immunity. Can you protect the airways, the mucosal tissues? – that’s the dream for vaccines. For oncology, we’re focused on CAR-T – a way to program T-cells. This is currently done outside the body, called ex vivo CAR-T; Senda is aiming to do it in vivo. And at the moment, CAR-T is mainly in leukemia and lymphomas. But of course, the goal is to expand to solid tumors. And you can also get T-cells to destroy autoimmune cells, such as autoimmune B cells. So again, you can see the same technology being used in autoimmune disease, and we’re running experiments now to test that possibility. And then thirdly, we’re working on the oral delivery of GLP-1, as I mentioned before.

So it’s very clear what we must do, and the experiments are very clearly laid out with very good controls. I’m very excited because I can’t wait for the next six months. If all goes to plan, just months from now, we’ll have a whole data set here that will give us even more evidence to support the entire premise of Senda. And as a next step, we’ll be looking to partner, but we will likely also develop some of these product candidates ourselves.

Marie: Cool. One final question. What’s it like to live in Dublin, but the company’s in Boston?

Luke O’Neill: Well, thank goodness for Zoom! And I’m often in the U.S. I’m more than happy to figure it out, because the excitement within Senda is palpable, and this next period is going to be so incredible, to watch all these things emerge.

Marie: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Luke O’Neill: Sure. I’d emphasize the two reasons why I joined Senda: 1) the science, and for me in particular, the immunology, is exciting. There are prospects here to really program the immune system for human health to address the various things we’ve spoken about – infectious and autoimmune diseases, and oncology. And 2) the people! It’s a very inclusive company. We’re all on the same page, but we express our viewpoints. I believe that will really help because the one thing you want in this situation is diverse opinions. It’s a great team and a fascinating bunch. We’ve all got different backgrounds, different expertise, and I was very keen to get to get in among them and make my contribution to everything that lies ahead for Senda.

Marie: Thank you, I appreciate it.

Luke O’Neill: Thanks very much.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and readability.


This is part of the Big4Bio Company to Watch program for April 2023: Senda Biosciences
For more information on the series, click here.