A mon­ster dis­cov­ery deal be­tween Ab­b­Vie and Google’s Cal­i­co gets a new lease on the lab, with $1B more to back ag­ing re­search

Near­ly 4 years af­ter Ab­b­Vie and Google’s fledg­ling Cal­i­co stepped up to the al­tar of drug sci­ence and com­mit­ted them­selves to a $1.5 bil­lion part­ner­ship on de­vel­op­ing a pipeline of an­ti-ag­ing drugs, they’ve de­cid­ed to re­new their vows.

Bob Co­hen

And this time they’re back­ing it up with a joint $1 bil­lion pledge — $500 mil­lion each — to keep the al­liance go­ing for some years to come, with an eye to slow­ly step­ping up the re­la­tion­ship in a move to­ward the clin­ic. In a rare pub­lic dis­play of af­fec­tion, the two com­pa­nies are tout­ing the ad­vance of more than two dozen late dis­cov­ery projects, with a spe­cial fo­cus on cel­lu­lar stress that they be­lieve has some pro­found long term im­pli­ca­tions for hu­man health. 

An­oth­er piece of in­fo: The fa­mous­ly qui­et Cal­i­co has built a big team of 150-plus around an HQ base in South San Fran­cis­co, with plans to add more.

But that’s about it. If they are work­ing on a rev­o­lu­tion in drug de­vel­op­ment aimed at putting more life in­to lengthy spans of liv­ing, don’t ex­pect any claims along the way about cur­ing can­cer, or di­a­betes or arthri­tis in mice. This new deal ex­tends their first pact by three years, with Cal­i­co re­spon­si­ble for re­search and ear­ly de­vel­op­ment un­til 2022. The Google-backed biotech will take projects through Phase IIa over the next nine years, with an op­tion on man­ag­ing late-stage ef­forts and com­mer­cial­iza­tion.

Prof­its — if they come — will be split.

Press ex­ecs on what they’ve been work­ing on, though, and you get point­ed to a long line­up of pa­pers Cal­i­co has pub­lished on their work, but no specifics on the most promis­ing tar­gets in their cho­sen field. How about the bud­get? Did they spend the $1.5 bil­lion?

Noth­ing.

Jim Sul­li­van

“We’re not go­ing to be spe­cif­ic about mol­e­c­u­lar tar­gets,” says Cal­i­co’s Bob Co­hen, a Genen­tech vet and can­cer spe­cial­ist. “It hasn’t been in our na­ture to hype about what we have.”

That’s ex­act­ly how Cal­i­co got things start­ed in 2014, tak­ing more of a tech ap­proach to bunker­ing in their labs as they work on drugs that can bend and stretch the span and qual­i­ty of an av­er­age life. At that time they had 10 staffers. That’s changed a lot, but you still won’t find ex­ecs talk­ing loose­ly about their spe­cif­ic fo­cus­es.

“What I can tell you is that we are very pleased with the progress of the col­lab­o­ra­tion,” says Jim Sul­li­van, the head of dis­cov­ery at Ab­b­Vie. “We have a num­ber of po­ten­tial vi­able clin­i­cal pro­grams.” There are un­spec­i­fied tar­gets for aug­ment­ing check­point in­hibitors, neu­ro­sciences is a big fo­cus. And tar­get­ing cel­lu­lar stress sys­tems is key.

Jonathan Lewis

“Our in­ter­est in ag­ing goes to the ba­sic roots of ag­ing,” says Co­hen. And that in­cludes us­ing a va­ri­ety of an­i­mal mod­els, from mice to naked mole rats and worms — on to yeast.

This next bil­lion should pave the way to the clin­ic, he adds, where hu­mans can get in­volved in one of the biggest, longest run­ning dis­cov­ery col­lab­o­ra­tions in the in­dus­try. Ab­b­Vie and Cal­i­co be­lieve they are defin­ing a new field of R&D. And they’re think­ing in decade-long time spans to reach some im­por­tant goals — af­ter spend­ing a con­sid­er­able amount of mon­ey.

“It’s al­so im­por­tant to bear in mind that it takes many years to get things for­ward,” says Jonathan Lewis, the vice pres­i­dent of BD at Cal­i­co. “We are con­fi­dent we won’t need to raise more fund­ing.”

(Or not. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Cal­i­co  fol­lowed up to say that “fu­ture fund­ing needs will be dri­ven by the suc­cess of these pro­grams.”)

Qual­i­ty Con­trol in Cell and Gene Ther­a­py – What’s Re­al­ly at Stake?

In early 2021, Bluebird Bio was forced to suspend clinical trials of its gene therapy for sickle cell disease after two patients in the trial developed cancer. As company scientists rushed to assess whether there was any causal link between the therapy and the cancer cases, Bluebird’s stock value plummeted – as did those of multiple other biopharma companies developing similar therapies.

While investigations concluded that the gene therapy was unlikely to have caused cancer, investors and the public may be more skittish regarding the safety of gene and cell therapies after this episode. This recent example highlights how delicate the fields of cell and gene therapy remain today, even as they show great promise.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Sen­a­tors to NIH: Do more to pro­tect US bio­med­ical re­search from for­eign in­flu­ence

Although Thursday’s Senate health committee hearing was focused on how foreign countries and adversaries might be trying to steal or negatively influence biomedical research in the US, the only country mentioned by the senators and expert witnesses was China.

Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) made clear in her opening remarks that the US cannot “let the few instances of bad actors” overshadow the hard work of the many immigrant researchers in the US, many of which have won Nobel prizes for their work. But she also said, “There is more the NIH can be doing here.”

Law pro­fes­sors call for FDA to dis­close all safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta for drugs

Back in early 2018 when Scott Gottlieb led the FDA, there was a moment when the agency seemed poised to release redacted complete response letters and other previously undisclosed data. But that initiative never gained steam.

Now, a growing chorus of researchers are finding that a dearth of public data on clinical trials and pharmaceuticals means industry and the FDA cannot be held accountable, two law professors from Yale and New York University write in an article published Wednesday in the California Law Review.

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JP Gabriel, Ocugen

JP Gabriel watched from the bleach­ers as the pan­dem­ic raged. Now head of sup­ply chain at Ocu­gen, he's ready to bat

The world was in the middle of the most pressing public health risk his generation had ever seen, and JP Gabriel felt like he was sitting on the sidelines. As a VP of biologics and mRNA manufacturing at Ultragenyx, Gabriel watched from the sidelines as players like Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna used mRNA tech to chase their own Covid-19 vaccines.

This month, Gabriel got the chance to get his hands dirty against the pandemic — but it won’t be with mRNA.

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Novavax CEO Stanley Erck at the White House in 2020 (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

As fears mount over J&J and As­traZeneca, No­vavax en­ters a shaky spot­light

As concerns rise around the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines, global attention is increasingly turning to the little, 33-year-old, productless, bankruptcy-flirting biotech that could: Novavax.

In the now 16-month race to develop and deploy Covid-19 vaccines, Novavax has at times seemed like the pandemic’s most unsuspecting frontrunner and at times like an overhyped also-ran. Although they started the pandemic with only enough cash to last 6 months, they leveraged old connections and believers into $2 billion and emerged last summer with data experts said surpassed Pfizer and Moderna. They unveiled plans to quickly scale to 2 billion doses. Then they couldn’t even make enough material to run their US trial and watched four other companies beat them to the finish line.

FDA of­fers scathing re­view of Emer­gent plan­t's san­i­tary con­di­tions, em­ploy­ee train­ing af­ter halt­ing pro­duc­tion

The FDA wrapped up its inspection of Emergent’s troubled vaccine manufacturing plant in Baltimore on Tuesday, after halting production there on Monday. By Wednesday morning, the agency already released a series of scathing observations on the cross contamination, sanitary issues and lack of staff training that caused the contract manufacturer to dispose of millions of AstraZeneca and J&J vaccine doses.

Brad Bolzon (Versant)

Ver­sant pulls the wraps off of near­ly $1B in 3 new funds out to build the next fleet of biotech star­tups. And this new gen­er­a­tion is built for speed

Brad Bolzon has an apology to offer by way of introducing a set of 3 new funds that together pack a $950 million wallop in new biotech creation and growth.

“I want to apologize,” says the Versant chairman and managing partner, laughing a little in the intro, “that we don’t have anything fancy or flashy to tell you about our new fund. Same team, around the same amount of capital, same investment strategy. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But then there’s the flip side, where everything has changed. Or at least speeded into a relative blur. Here’s Bolzon:

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Covid-19 man­u­fac­tur­ing roundup: Mary­land looks to grow biotech ca­pac­i­ty with $400M check; Rus­sia lands sec­ond Sput­nik V part­ner this week

A Maryland real estate project has added three new biotech-focused manufacturing and research buildings to an office park to keep up with demand created by the pandemic, the Washington Business Journal reported.

The Milestone Business Park — located off of I-270 in Germantown, MD — will see the new buildings and a total of 532,000 square feet as the campus rebrands to Milestone Innovation Park.

Jenny Rooke (Genoa Ventures)

Ear­ly Zymer­gen in­vestor Jen­ny Rooke re­flects on 'chimeras' in biotech, what it takes to spot a $500M gem

When Jenny Rooke first heard of Zymergen back in 2014, she knew she was looking at something different and exciting. The Emeryville, CA biotech held the promise of blending biology and technology to solve a huge unmet need for cost-effective chemicals — of all things — and a stellar founding team to boot.

But back then, West Coast venture capitalists didn’t see in Zymergen the one thing they were looking for in a winning biotech: therapeutic potential. Rooke, however, saw an opportunity and made her bets. Seven years later, that bet is paying off in a big way.

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