A transpa­cif­ic biotech start­up com­bines Asian in­vestors and some se­ri­ous­ly trendy sci­ence out of MIT

Syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gist Tim­o­thy Lu has been do­ing some mind blow­ing sci­en­tif­ic work at MIT. A few months ago he and some of his col­leagues wrote up their work de­sign­ing and cre­at­ing mam­malian ge­net­ic cir­cuits that could be used to spawn, say, a whole new breed of T cells that could be en­gi­neered to go on the at­tack against can­cer cells — with built-in trig­gers to a set of bio­mark­ers.

Jef­frey Lu

This fas­ci­na­tion with syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy — along with some close ties to the lead­ers in this emerg­ing field — has spurred Lu to part­ner with his broth­er Jef­frey on cre­at­ing a transpa­cif­ic biotech dubbed En­gine Bio­sciences that plans to in­te­grate ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and ma­chine learn­ing with hands-on lab work in drug de­vel­op­ment to cre­ate a whole new kind of drug de­vel­op­ment plat­form, one they say can test a dizzy­ing ar­ray of ge­net­ic in­ter­ac­tions in par­al­lel in search of those nee­dles in the da­ta in­tense haystack that can point to mul­ti­ple drug pro­grams.

It is the buzzi­est of all biotech types fo­cused on some of the trendi­est dis­cov­ery work now dom­i­nat­ing the dis­cus­sion in bio­phar­ma’s pre­clin­i­cal cir­cles. That’s pret­ty good for a com­pa­ny that cur­rent­ly has 6 full-time em­ploy­ees. But there’s al­so more here than lab projects and sci­ence pa­pers.

To­day En­gine is tak­ing the wraps off a $10 mil­lion seed round com­ing from a col­lec­tion of some very se­ri­ous in­vestors fund­ing the cur­rent burst of biotech ac­tiv­i­ty in places like Shang­hai and Sin­ga­pore.

Hu Li

The mon­ey is com­ing from a set of in­vestors with deep roots in Asia: DHVC (AI spe­cial­ists at Dan­hua Cap­i­tal) and 6 Di­men­sions Cap­i­tal (re­cent­ly formed through the merg­er of Front­line Bioven­tures and WuXi Health­care Ven­tures in May 2017). WuXi AppTec, Sin­ga­pore’s ED­BI, Temasek sub Pavil­ion Cap­i­tal, Baidu Ven­tures, WI Harp­er, and Nest.Bio Ven­tures al­so got in­volved.

The work at En­gine will be done in the Bay Area and Sin­ga­pore, where Tim­o­thy Lu has a lab. And it will in­volve a slate of some big names in the field: Mayo Clin­ic as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor Hu Li, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia San Diego as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor Prashant Mali, and co-chair of the sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­so­ry board and MIT pro­fes­sor Jim Collins.

The drug de­vel­op­ment cy­cle as we know it now is chal­lenged by com­plex bi­ol­o­gy and a one-by-one ap­proach that in­vites slow de­vel­op­ment time­lines and ex­tra­or­di­nar­i­ly high fail­ure rates, says CEO and co-founder Jef­frey Lu. Fig­ur­ing out every­thing from tar­get dis­cov­ery to strat­i­fi­ca­tion of pa­tient pop­u­la­tions re­quires a com­plex as­sess­ment of all those fac­tors.

Their plat­form looks to an­swer those ques­tions in a fast and ef­fi­cient man­ner.

“That’s the mis­sion of the com­pa­ny,” says Jef­frey Lu.

Jim Collins

That cov­ers a vast amount of pos­si­bil­i­ties, of course, so En­gine is nar­row­ing it down to on­col­o­gy, with work un­der­way on liv­er can­cer and ovar­i­an can­cer, and con­struc­tion in process on a neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive plat­form. There’s al­so a project for skin ag­ing, work­ing with a skin care group. And there are plans to part­ner ear­ly and of­ten.

“We thought it was im­por­tant to have a wet lab bi­ol­o­gy da­ta gen­er­a­tion tool that gen­er­ates our own pro­pri­etary dataset so we can train al­go­rithms to get bet­ter and bet­ter, im­prov­ing the pre­dic­tive ca­pa­bil­i­ties of our in sil­i­co meth­ods,” says Jef­frey Lu. And now that the seed round is in place, he’ll be dou­bling or tripling the small staff by the end of this year to start turn­ing their plat­form dreams in­to re­al­i­ty.

The mon­ey, he says, should last two years.


Im­age: Tim­o­thy Lu. MIT Cam­paign for a Bet­ter World

M&A: a crit­i­cal dri­ver for sus­tain­able top-line growth in health­care

2021 saw a record $600B in healthcare M&A activity. In 2022, there is an anticipated slowdown in activity, however, M&A prospects remain strong in the medium to long-term. What are future growth drivers for the healthcare sector? Where might we see innovations that drive M&A? RBC’s Andrew Callaway, Global Head, Healthcare Investment Banking discusses with Vito Sperduto, Global Co-Head, M&A.

15 LGBTQ lead­ers in bio­phar­ma; Paul Stof­fels’ Gala­pa­gos re­vamp; As­traZeneca catch­es up in AT­TR; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

A return to in-person conferences also marks a return to on-the-ground reporting. My colleagues Beth Synder Bulik and Nicole DeFeudis were on-site at Cannes Lions, bringing live coverage of pharma’s presence at the ad festival — accompanied by photos from Clara Bui, our virtual producer, that bring you right to the scene. You can find a recap (and links to all the stories) below.

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AstraZeneca's new Evusheld direct to consumer campaign aims to reach more immunocompromised patients.

As­traZeneca de­buts first con­sumer cam­paign for its Covid-19 pro­phy­lac­tic Evusheld — and a first for EUA drugs

AstraZeneca’s first consumer ad for Evusheld is also a first for drugs that have been granted emergency use authorizations during the pandemic.

The first DTC ad for a medicine under emergency approval, the Evusheld campaign launching this week aims to raise awareness among immunocompromised patients — and spur more use.

Evusheld nabbed emergency authorization in December, however, despite millions of immunocompromised people looking for a solution and now more widespread availability of the drug.

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De­spite a slow start to the year for deals, PwC pre­dicts a flur­ry of ac­tiv­i­ty com­ing up

Despite whispers of a busy year for M&A, deal activity in the pharma space is actually down 30% on a semi-annualized basis, according to PwC’s latest report on deal activity. But don’t rule out larger deals in the second half of the year, the consultants said.

PwC pharmaceutical and life sciences consulting solutions leader Glenn Hunzinger expects to see Big Pharma companies picking up earlier stage companies to try and fill pipeline gaps ahead of a slew of big patent cliffs. Though a bear market continues to maul the biotech sector, Hunzinger said recent deals indicate that pharma companies are still paying above current trading prices.

Abortion-rights protesters regroup and protest following Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Fol­low­ing SCO­TUS de­ci­sion to over­turn abor­tion pro­tec­tions, AG Gar­land says states can't ban the abor­tion pill

Following the Supreme Court’s historic decision on Friday to overturn Americans’ constitutional right to an abortion after almost 50 years, Attorney General Merrick Garland sought to somewhat reassure women that states will not be able to ban the prescription drug sometimes used for abortions.

Following the decision, the New England Journal of Medicine also published an editorial strongly condemning the reversal, saying it “serves American families poorly, putting their health, safety, finances, and futures at risk.”

Yong Dai, Frontera Therapeutics CEO

Scoop: Lit­tle-known Or­biMed-backed biotech clos­es $160M round to start gene ther­a­py tri­al

Frontera Therapeutics, a China and US biotech, has closed a $160 million Series B and received regulatory clearance to test its first gene therapy stateside, Endpoints News has learned.

Led by the largest shareholder, OrbiMed, the biotech has secured $195 million total since its September 2019 founding, according to an email reviewed by Endpoints. The lead AAV gene therapy program is for an undisclosed rare eye disease, according to the source.

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DEM BioPharma CEO David Donabedian (L) and executive chair Jan Skvarka

Long­wood sets an­oth­er 'don't eat me' biotech in­to gear with help of for­mer Tril­li­um CEO Jan Skvar­ka

Jonathan Weissman and team are out with a cancer-fighting biotech riding the appetite for those so-called “don’t eat me” and “eat me” signals.

The scientific co-founder — alongside fellow Whitehead Institute colleague Kipp Weiskopf and Stanford biologist Michael Bassik — has launched DEM BioPharma with incubator Longwood Fund and a crop of other investors.

In all, the nascent, 10-employee biotech has $70 million to bankroll hematology- and solid tumor-based programs, including a lead asset that could enter human trials in two to three years, CEO David Donabedian told Endpoints News.

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GSK says its drug for chron­ic hep B could ‘lead to a func­tion­al cure’ — but will it be alone or in com­bi­na­tion?

GSK, newly branded and soon-to-be demerged, shared interim results from its Phase II trial on its chronic hepatitis B treatment, one that it says has the “potential to lead to a functional cure.”

At a presentation at the EASL International Liver Congress, GSK shared that in around 450 patients who received its hep B drug bepirovirsen for 24 weeks, just under 30% had hepatitis B surface antigen and viral DNA levels that were too low to detect.

FDA un­veils new draft guid­ance to help with oligonu­cleotide ther­a­peu­tics de­vel­op­ment

While oligonucleotides, a wide variety of synthetically modified RNA or RNA/DNA hybrids that bind to a target RNA sequence to alter RNA and/or protein expression, have been winning approvals in recent years (e.g. Novartis’ cholesterol drug Leqvio), the regulatory agency is offering new draft guidance for those looking to follow a similar path.

The non-binding guidance, titled “Clinical Pharmacology Considerations for the Development of Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Guidance for Industry” deals with pharmacokinetic, pharmacodynamic, and safety assessments required as part of oligonucleotide therapeutics R&D.

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