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.”)

Elizabeth Nabel speaks at a news conference, Oct. 7, 2019 (Elise Amendola/AP Images)

Brigham and Wom­en's pres­i­dent Eliz­a­beth Nabel fol­lows Mon­cef Slaoui off Mod­er­na's board

Amid recent scrutiny on how Moderna’s top executives have been cashing out their increasingly valuable shares, the biotech is parting ways with a board member who’s also heading a hospital where its Covid-19 vaccine is being tested.

Elizabeth Nabel — the president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital — has followed in Moncef Slaoui’s footsteps in resigning from Moderna’s board of directors. She took the role in 2015, two years before the Operation Warp Speed leader did; and as with Slaoui and MIT professor Robert Langer, her term was due to expire in 2021.

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Tony Coles, Cerevel Therapeutics CEO

Adding $445M, Tony Coles and his big Pfiz­er neu­ro spin­out hitch a ride to Wall Street on Per­cep­tive’s SPAC

Two years ago, after Pfizer abruptly shut down its entire neuroscience division, Bain Capital bet $350 million that those assets were still worth something and packaged them into a new biotech: Cerevel Therapeutics. A year later, they got seasoned executive Tony Coles, who had recently jumped back into the C-suite of another neuroscience startup, to run the company.

Now Coles is steering Cerevel public, in what he says is the largest ever transaction of its kind. Cerevel has agreed to merge with Perceptive Advisors’ specialty acquisition company ARYA II. Between the roughly $125 million Perceptive raised through ARYA and an additional investment of $320 million Bain Capital, Perceptive and — yes, really — Pfizer, among others, Cerevel will now move forward with an added $445 million in its coffers.

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Roche de­clares a PhI­II fail­ure for Covid-19 as the IL-6 re­pur­pos­ing the­o­ry bites the dust

Another big IL-6 drug has failed to move the needle for Covid-19 patients, leaving that particular field of repurposed drug R&D on the ropes for the pandemic.

This morning it was Roche’s turn to outline a Phase III failure for Actemra, adding compelling data that have now all but extinguished the theory that an IL-6 drug could significantly help the most severely afflicted patients. That comes just weeks after Regeneron and Sanofi hit the red light on their trial for Kevzara after getting back-to-back readouts that made Roche’s trial a long shot at best.

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Severin Schwan, Roche CEO (Georgios Kefalas/Keystone via AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Genen­tech slash­es near­ly 500 jobs in strate­gic shift to 'lo­cal health­care ecosys­tems.' Clin­i­cal spe­cial­ists make up the biggest group

Deep into the pandemic, the executives at Roche are executing an unusual plan to lay off nearly 500 workers at South San Francisco-based Genentech.

The huge Roche subsidiary handed in their WARN notice to the state a few days ago, noting that 474 staffers were being permanently cut from the payroll.

A spokesperson for the company told me via e-mail:

The majority of these roles are from our field organization and, though formally associated with our South San Francisco headquarters, are actually located throughout the United States. These position eliminations are not related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the clinical trials for which Actemra is being studied in COVID-19 pneumonia, or any specific therapeutic area.

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Robert Nelsen (Illustration by Emma Kumer for Endpoints News)

Af­ter Big Phar­ma aban­doned in­fec­tious dis­eases, 5 biotech con­trar­i­ans de­cid­ed to go all in. Then Covid-19 changed every­thing

Bob Nelsen had been quietly wondering how to eradicate viruses for years, before one day in 2015, he welcomed a pair of immunologists into the ARCH Venture Partners offices on the 34th floor of Seattle’s Wells Fargo Building.

Louis Picker and Klaus Früh, professors at Oregon Health & Science University, had by then spent 5 years running around the country in search of funding for their startup, TomegaVax, and Früh, at least, was nearing wit’s end. The Gates Foundation was interested but told them they needed other investors. Investors told them to come back with more data, pharmaceutical executives said they’re in the wrong game — too little money to be made fighting infectious disease. Still, a well-connected board member named Bob More landed them a meeting with the coveted venture capitalist, and so, in a narrow conference room overlooking the Puget Sound, Picker prepared to again explain the idea he had spent 15 years on: re-engineering a benign microbe into the first vaccines for HIV and better ones for hepatitis and tuberculosis.

“This lightbulb went on his head,” Picker recalled in a recent interview. “Most of them just didn’t get it. And Bob’s hit.”

By that point, Nelsen was more than just a venture capitalist. Scraggly and greying but no less opinionated at 52, he was mobbed at biotech conferences, having earned a reputation for crass wisdom and uncanny foresight, for making big bets on big ideas that changed medicine. Those ideas included DNA sequencing, which he first cut a check for in the 90s, and leveraging the immune system to tackle cancer. He earned millions making billion-dollar companies.

Yet for years he had harbored an almost singular obsession: “I hate viruses,” he told Forbes in 2016. He told me he was “pissed off” at them. The obsession drove him to his first biotech investment in 1993, for an inhalable flu vaccine approved a decade later and still in use. And it drove him to invest in CAR-T as a potential cure for HIV, years before it proved a wildly effective treatment for some cancers.

Now, listening to Picker talk about T cells and antibodies and the curious biology of cytomegalovirus, Nelsen began wondering if it was time for another bet. Picker’s technology was not only promising, he reasoned, it could be the basis of a company that changed how researchers approached viruses. Instead of trying to come up with an antidote for every pathogen, you could do what cancer researchers had learned to do, and harness the immune system to do the work for you.

This wasn’t a popular opinion at the time. “It’s like the least trendy idea in the world,” Nelsen told me. “People would say, ‘Why the hell are you going into infectious disease?’”

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Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO (AP Images)

Mod­er­na, Pfiz­er be­gin to give glimpse of Covid-19 vac­cine pric­ing — and prof­its

What do you charge for a Covid-19 vaccine? The world is beginning to find out — and with it, just how much the vaccine developers stand to make.

Pfizer said that they are pricing one course of their vaccine at $39, confirming what their Operation Warp Speed contract last week had indicated. That contract, the first yet to a put a price on a potential coronavirus vaccine, paid Pfizer $1.95 billion for 100 million doses, or $19.5 per dose. With the vaccine coming in two doses per course, that’s $39.

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Sanofi and GSK say they're near a vac­cine deal with EU hours af­ter fi­nal­iz­ing Warp Speed con­tract

On the heels of landing the largest Warp Speed contract to date, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline continued to make moves Friday afternoon.

The two companies announced they are in advanced discussions with the EU to supply up to 300 million doses of their Covid-19 vaccine candidate, coming just a few hours after securing their $2.1 billion deal with the US. Should the agreement be finalized, all EU member states will have the option to purchase the vaccine.

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President Trump speaks during an event to sign executive orders on lowering drug prices, July 24, 2020 (Alex Brandon/AP Images)

Trump’s ‘rad­i­cal’, ‘hor­ri­ble’ ex­ec­u­tive or­ders on drug pric­ing earn a C-suite back­lash this week — with one threat to do more over­seas

Once the pandemic erupted in the US, Big Pharma enjoyed a brief period of detente — if not actually warm relations — with the Trump administration.

After years of criticizing high drug prices and threatening legislation that would curb the industry’s pricing freedom, the president warmly encouraged the industry’s commitment to a pell mell race to new vaccines and drugs to fight Covid-19 — often at speeds that would have been considered impossible back in January. And it raised the possibility that biopharma could finally find a way to achieve some kind of popularity after years of public toxicity.

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Paul Hudson, AP Images

Sanofi and GSK grab largest Warp Speed deal yet, se­cur­ing $2.1B for a vac­cine that might come next year

Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline have become the latest members of Operation Warp Speed, landing a $2.1 billion contract to scale up manufacturing for a vaccine that is on track for completion next year. The deal secures the US 100 million doses, with an option for 500 million more.

It is the largest contract the White House has given yet in its hunt to make 300 million doses of a vaccine available to the US public by January, although Sanofi has not committed to supply vaccines by that time, potentially opening the door for other developers with longer development paths to gain funding. The cash will help Sanofi scale the vaccine, which combines their recombinant DNA technology with GSK’s immune-boosting adjuvant, to a billion doses next year.

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