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

A New Fron­tier: The In­ner Ear

What happens when a successful biotech venture capitalist is unexpectedly diagnosed with a chronic, life-disrupting vertigo disorder? Innovation in neurotology.

That venture capitalist was Jay Lichter, Ph.D., and after learning there was no FDA-approved drug treatment for his condition, Ménière’s disease, he decided to create a company to bring drug development to neurotology. Otonomy was founded in 2008 and is dedicated to finding new drug treatments for the hugely underserved community living with balance and hearing disorders. Helping patients like Jay has been the driving force behind Otonomy, a company heading into a transformative 2020 with three clinical trial readouts: Phase 3 in Ménière’s disease, Phase 2 in tinnitus, and Phase 1/2 in hearing loss. These catalysts, together with others in the field, highlight the emerging opportunity in neurotology.
Otonomy is leading the way in neurotology
Neurotology, or the treatment of inner ear neurological disorders, is a large and untapped market for drug developers: one in eight individuals in the U.S. have moderate-to-severe hearing loss, tinnitus or vertigo disorders such as Ménière’s disease.1 With no FDA-approved drug treatments available for these conditions, the burden on patients—including social anxiety, lower quality of life, reduced work productivity, and higher rates of depression—can be significant.2, 3, 4

Joe Jimenez, Getty

Ex-No­var­tis CEO Joe Jimenez is tak­ing an­oth­er crack at open­ing a new chap­ter in his ca­reer — and that in­cludes a new board seat and a $250M start­up

Joe Jimenez is back.

The ex-CEO of Novartis has taken a board seat on Century Therapeutics, the Versant and Bayer-backed startup focused on coming up with a brand new twist on cell therapies for cancer — a field where Jimenez made his mark backing the first personalized CAR-T approved for use.

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Can we make the an­tibi­ot­ic mar­ket great again?

The standard for-profit model in drug development is straightforward. Spend millions, even billions, to develop a medicine from scratch. The return on investment (and ideally a tidy profit) comes via volume and/or price, depending on the disease. But the string of big pharma exits and slew of biotech bankruptcies indicate that the model is sorely flawed when it comes to antibiotics.

The industry players contributing to the arsenal of antimicrobials are fast dwindling, and the pipeline for new antibiotics is embarrassingly sparse, the WHO has warned. Drugmakers are enticed by greener pastures, compared to the long, arduous and expensive path to antibiotic approval that offers little financial gain as treatments are typically priced cheaply, and often lose potency over time as microbes grow resistant to them.

Eye­ing a trio of tri­al ini­ti­a­tions, Jim Wilson's gene ther­a­py start­up woos Bruce Gold­smith from Deer­field as CEO

Passage Bio — Jim Wilson’s self-described “legacy company” — has wooed a seasoned biotech executive to steer the clinical entry of its first three gene therapy programs.

Bruce Goldsmith jumps to the helm of Passage after a brief CEO stint at Civetta, a cancer-focused startup he helped launch while a venture partner at Deerfield. He takes over from OrbiMed partner and interim chief Stephen Squinto, who will now lead the R&D team.

Amber Saltzman (Ohana)

Flag­ship's first ven­ture of 2020 is out, and it's all about sperm

A couple years ago, Amber Salzman got a call as she was returning East full-time after a two-year stint running a gene therapy company in California.

It was from someone at Flagship Pioneering, the deep-pocketed biotech venture firm. They had a new company with a new way of thinking about sperm. It had been incubating for over a year, and now they wanted her to run it.

“It exactly fit,” Salzman told Endpoints News. “I just thought I had to do something.”

Pfiz­er ax­es 6 ear­ly to late-stage can­cer stud­ies from the pipeline — with one oth­er cut for sick­le cell dis­ease

Pfizer trimmed a group of 3 R&D programs using their PD-L1 Bavencio — partnered with Merck KGaA — in their latest pipeline cull.

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UP­DAT­ED: In­cyte scores much need­ed PhI­II suc­cess — and of course it’s de­liv­ered by rux­oli­tinib

Incyte’s efforts to breathe a second life into ruxolitinib — its JAK inhibitor sold in pill form as Jakafi — has been greeted with clear, if preliminary and unsurprising, Phase III success.

Topline data from the TRuE-AD2 cements ruxolitinib’s foundational importance for Incyte, and gives analysts hope that there might yet be room for growth in a pipeline that’s suffered multiple R&D setbacks.

Stephen Hahn, AP

The FDA un­veils a new reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work to speed along gene ther­a­pies, re­ward­ing the lead­ing play­ers

Bioregnum Opinion Column by John Carroll

The emphasis at the FDA over the past 5 years or so has been on assisting drug developers as much as they can to speed up regulatory reviews and push more drugs into the market. And they are now crafting a final set of regulations aimed at flagging through a whole new generation of gene therapies in clinical testing at a rapid clip.

In a set of 6 prospective guidances posted on the FDA web site Tuesday morning, FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn committed the agency to staying flexible in handing out designations that are critical to gaining early approvals for drugs that claim to be once-and-done but don’t have anything close to the data needed to prove it.

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Mike Bloomberg (AP IMAGES)

Mike Bloomberg joins a grow­ing cho­rus of De­mo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates threat­en­ing to go af­ter drug patents

As the mayor of New York City, Mike Bloomberg had a few modest ideas about lowering prescription drug prices in the Big Apple that gained little traction. Now on the campaign trail on a faint hope of clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, the billionaire has some bigger plans — including one that would alter the patent system central to the biopharma business.

In a barebones drug pricing plan posted on Monday, Bloomberg came out blasting President Donald Trump for failing to deliver his promise to lower drug prices, and then making misleading claims about them. The price of over 3,000 drugs still increased at a rate five times higher than inflation in the first six months of 2019, he wrote.