(L-R) Samta Kundu (COO), Jake Becraft (CEO), Tasuku Kitada (head of R&D) [Strand Therapeutics]

A pair of for­mer MIT re­searchers think they've un­locked the next gen­er­a­tion of mR­NA us­ing syn­bio 'log­ic cir­cuit­s'

The time of mR­NA is in full swing as Mod­er­na and Pfiz­er/BioN­Tech have blown the doors off the field. But in drug de­vel­op­ers’ eyes, cur­rent-gen mR­NA vac­cines are just an ap­pe­tiz­er to the full course of ther­a­peu­tics fur­ther down the menu — at least that’s what two for­mer MIT re­searchers with syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy roots are gam­bling on.

Strand Ther­a­peu­tics emerged from stealth Wednes­day with a $52 mil­lion Se­ries A to ad­vance its pipeline of pro­gram­ma­ble, self am­pli­fy­ing mR­NA ther­a­pies ini­tial­ly tar­get­ed at sol­id tu­mor im­muno-on­col­o­gy, the biotech said.

The team’s re­search stems from the work of CEO Jake Be­craft and head of R&D Tasuku Ki­ta­da at MIT’s Syn­thet­ic Bi­ol­o­gy Cen­ter and the Weiss Lab, where the pair met and fo­cused on ap­ply­ing syn­bio prin­ci­ples to mR­NA ther­a­peu­tic de­vel­op­ment. Along the way, their work formed Strand’s plat­form, which turns out long act­ing mR­NA ther­a­pies with greater speci­fici­ty and a wider ther­a­peu­tic in­dex than the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of mR­NA vac­cines.

The biotech is us­ing self am­pli­fy­ing tech, which in­duces a sin­gle copy of the mR­NA drug to repli­cate it­self in vi­vo. That of­fers a much longer ther­a­peu­tic win­dow than cell ther­a­pies like the Covid-19 vac­cines from Mod­er­na and BioN­Tech, Be­craft told End­points News, which work on the scale of days rather than weeks.

But per­haps the biggest dif­fer­ence from its range of com­peti­tors is Strand’s use of “ge­net­i­cal­ly pro­gram­ma­ble log­ic cir­cuits,” which al­low its mR­NA drugs to en­ter a spe­cif­ic cel­lu­lar en­vi­ron­ment and turn pro­tein ex­pres­sion on or off de­pend­ing on a se­ries of bio­mark­ers. It’s a for­mu­la fa­mil­iar in syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy: Use “sen­sors” to iden­ti­fy the tar­get en­vi­ron­ment, “log­ic process” or com­pute those sig­nals, and then ef­fect a tar­get out­put.

The com­pa­ny’s syn­bio plat­form serves a dual pur­pose of al­low­ing tight con­trol over RNA self-repli­ca­tion, en­sur­ing the ther­a­py is on­ly around in the cell as long as it needs to be.

“One of the ma­jor prob­lems with self repli­ca­tion mR­NA is that you ac­tu­al­ly need to con­trol their repli­ca­tion at a much tighter lev­el — and that’s ac­tu­al­ly what syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy is re­al­ly per­fect for,” Be­craft said. “You go in­to the se­quence of the repli­ca­tion ma­chin­ery and you can make mod­i­fi­ca­tions to how it repli­cates and ac­tu­al­ly con­trol it.”

All that, ul­ti­mate­ly, means one drug could the­o­ret­i­cal­ly have an ef­fect on a range of dis­ease types — par­tic­u­lar­ly in a het­ero­ge­neous ther­a­peu­tic area such as can­cer. No sur­prise, then, that can­cer is ex­act­ly where Strand is aim­ing first.

The biotech is hop­ing to take its lead drug, which is fo­cused in the sol­id tu­mor I/O space in­to the clin­ic by 2022. The com­pound is the tar­get of a li­cens­ing pact with Chi­nese drug­mak­er BeiGene, which has pledged to cov­er some de­vel­op­ment and com­mer­cial­iza­tion costs in the re­gion. Can­cer is no easy area to jump head­first in­to, but it is a prof­itable one. Be­craft high­light­ed the field’s well-es­tab­lished bi­ol­o­gy as ripe with big tar­gets for Strand’s drugs.

“I think can­cer is a great first tar­get for things like the next gen­er­a­tion of RNA ther­a­peu­tics be­cause can­cer has a lot of known tar­gets and known bi­ol­o­gy for ther­a­peu­tic in­ter­ven­tion,” Be­craft said. “It just gives you a great start­ing point to de­vel­op a new plat­form. Can­cer kills peo­ple; we got­ta do some­thing.”

Be­craft said his com­pa­ny would look to sign sim­i­lar deals in the com­ing months, aim­ing to sign on “high­ly strate­gic” part­ners to ad­vance Strand’s pipeline and com­mer­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties.

It’s the first go-round as CEO for Be­craft, who made the jump straight from MIT as he worked to build Strand in stealth mode along­side Ki­ta­da start­ing in 2018. He said his first pri­or­i­ties are dri­ving the com­pa­ny’s lead pro­gram ahead while build­ing the pipeline and adding a strong team around him. The com­pa­ny is cur­rent­ly on a hir­ing spree with 25 on board and hopes to hit as many as 80 em­ploy­ees as it nears the clin­ic, Be­craft said.

The Se­ries A round was joined by a syn­di­cate of in­vestors in Red­mile Group, BeiGene and Cam­ford Cap­i­tal, as well as ex­ist­ing in­vestors Play­ground Glob­al and AN­RI.

Illustration: Assistant Editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

How Pur­due's $272M ad­dic­tion pay­out fund­ed a new home for its dis­card­ed non-opi­oid re­search

Don Kyle spent more than 20 years working for Purdue Pharma, right through the US opioid epidemic that led to the company’s rise and eventual infamy. But contrary to Purdue’s focus on OxyContin, Kyle was researching non-opioid painkillers — that is, until the company shelved his research.

As the company’s legal troubles mounted, Kyle found an unlikely way to reboot the project. In 2019, he took his work to an Oklahoma State University center that’s slated to receive more than two-thirds of the state’s $272 million settlement with Purdue over claims that the drugmaker’s behavior ignited the epidemic of opioid use and abuse.

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President Joe Biden at the State of the Union address with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Patrick Semansky/AP Images)

The drug pric­ing pres­i­dent: Biden warns of ve­to for any IRA re­peal at­tempts

President Joe Biden made clear in his “finish the job” State of the Union address last night that one of those jobs to be finished is insulin prices.

Biden’s push again to tackle insulin prices, after Republicans rebuffed the idea last summer and just after Biden won Medicare drug price negotiations/caps via the Inflation Reduction Act, shows how heavily he’s leaning into this work.

Rupert Vessey, Bristol Myers Squibb head of research and early development

Up­dat­ed: R&D tur­bu­lence at Bris­tol My­ers now in­cludes the end of a $650M al­liance and the de­par­ture of a top re­search cham­pi­on

This morning biotech Dragonfly put out word that Bristol Myers Squibb has handed back all rights to its IL-12 clinical-stage drug after spending $650 million to advance it into the clinic.

The news arrives amid a turbulent R&D stage for the pharma giant, which late last week highlighted Rupert Vessey’s decision to depart this summer as head of early-stage R&D following a crucial three-year stretch after he jumped to Bristol Myers in the big Celgene buyout. During that time he struck a series of deals for Bristol Myers, and also shepherded a number of Celgene programs down the pipeline, playing a major role for a lineup of biotechs which depended on him to champion their drugs.

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Bill Haney, Dragonfly CEO (Dave Pedley/Getty Images for SXSW)

Drag­on­fly chief: Bris­tol My­ers shouldn’t blame IL-12’s clin­i­cal per­for­mance for de­ci­sion to scrap the deal — eco­nom­ics played a key role

Bristol Myers Squibb says the IL-12 drug they were developing out of Dragonfly Therapeutics was scrubbed from the pipeline for a simple reason: It didn’t measure up on clinical performance.

But Bill Haney, the CEO of Dragonfly, is taking issue with that.

The early-stage drug, still in Phase I development, has passed muster with Bristol Myers’ general clinical expectations, advancing successfully while still in Phase I, he says.

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Utpal Koppikar, new Verily CFO

Ex­clu­sive: Ver­i­ly wel­comes Atara Bio­ther­a­peu­tics vet­er­an as new CFO

Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences outfit, has plucked a new CFO from the ranks of Atara Biotherapeutics, the company announced on Wednesday.

Utpal Koppikar joins Verily after a nearly five-year stint as CFO and senior VP at Atara, though his résumé also boasts roles at Gilead and Amgen.

The news follows a major reshuffling at Verily, including several senior departures earlier this year and a round of layoffs.

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Singer Nick Jonas is back at work for Dexcom, this time for its new G7 glucose monitor.

Dex­com's spokescelebri­ty Nick Jonas re­turns to Su­per Bowl in new glu­cose mon­i­tor com­mer­cial

Dexcom is going back to the Super Bowl with its pop singer and patient spokesperson Nick Jonas. Jonas takes center stage as the lone figure in the 30-second commercial showcasing Dexcom’s next-generation G7 continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) device.

Jonas’ sleight-of-hand tricks populate the commercial — he pinches his empty fingers together and pops them open to reveal the small CGM — even as he ends the ad, saying, “It’s not magic. It just feels that way.” Jonas then disappears in a puff of smoke.

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Richard Francis, newly-appointed Teva CEO (Novartis via Facebook)

New Te­va CEO Richard Fran­cis repri­or­i­tizes to 'get back to growth'

Six weeks into his new role at the helm of Teva Pharmaceutical, Richard Francis said it’s time to “get back to growth,” starting with a good look at the company’s priorities.

The chief executive has kicked off a strategic review, he announced during Teva’s quarterly call, which will continue over the next several months and produce results sometime in the middle of 2023. That means some pipeline cuts may be in store, he told Endpoints News, while declining to offer much more detail.

FDA Commissioner Robert Califf on Capitol Hill, Feb. 8, 2023 (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

FDA com­mis­sion­er floats ideas on how to bet­ter han­dle the pan­dem­ic

FDA Commissioner Rob Califf joined the heads of the CDC and NIH in the hot seat today before a key House subcommittee, explaining that there needs to be a much faster, more coordinated way to oversee vaccine safety, and that foreign biopharma inspections, halted for years due to the pandemic, are slowly ramping up again.

Califf, who stressed to the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health that the CDC also needs better data, made clear that the FDA’s ability to monitor the safety of vaccines “would also benefit greatly by a coordinated federal public health data reporting authority.”

Sanofi is renewing its #VaccinesForDreams campaign with more stories, such as Juan's in Argentina (Sanofi)

Sanofi re­news so­cial cam­paign to re­mind that vac­cines let peo­ple ‘Dream Big’

Sanofi is highlighting people’s dreams — both big and small — to make the point that vaccines make them possible.

The renewed “Dream Big” global social media campaign’s newest dreamer is Juan, a teacher in the Misiones rainforest in Argentina whose story is told through videos on Instagram and Sanofi’s website with the hashtag #VaccinesForDreams.

The campaign ties to Sanofi’s broader umbrella initiative “Vaccine Stories” to promote the value of vaccines and drive awareness of the need for improved vaccination coverage.

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