Nancy Yu (RDMD)

Abun­dant fund­ing, sparse da­ta: San Fran­cis­co start­up backs 're­al world' mod­el for rare dis­ease drug de­vel­op­ment

Rare dis­eases, a field of drug de­vel­op­ment where fund­ing far out­strips re­search on of­ten poor­ly un­der­stood con­di­tions, can leave sci­en­tists of­ten rein­vent­ing the wheel to en­gi­neer ther­a­peu­tics.

RD­MD, a San Fran­cis­co-based com­pa­ny, has a plan to ad­dress that im­passe by serv­ing as a con­duit be­tween the pa­tient and the drug de­vel­op­er. The plat­form courts pa­tients with rare dis­eases by help­ing them ac­cess med­ical records and par­tic­i­pate in re­search, while for drug de­vel­op­ers, the com­pa­ny struc­tures the com­piled da­ta in an ef­fort to build re­search pro­grams and de­vel­op an ev­i­dence base palat­able for reg­u­la­to­ry au­thor­i­ties.

Un­til now, com­pa­nies big and small in the space have been stuck look­ing for pa­tients in 10, 20 or more hos­pi­tals, de­pend­ing on the dis­ease, not­ed co-founder Nan­cy Yu in an in­ter­view.

“So most com­pa­nies are grow­ing their in­ter­nal teams, as well as work­ing with con­tract re­search or­ga­ni­za­tions, and sub­con­tract­ing to up to some­times 15 dif­fer­ent soft­ware ven­dors to man­age the process,” Yu said.

Stream­lin­ing this process, and help­ing pa­tients them­selves ac­cess their da­ta and par­tic­i­pate in re­search, could change the way the rare dis­ease drug de­vel­op­ment is con­duct­ed, RD­MD hopes. This lofty goal was giv­en a $14 mil­lion in­jec­tion on Thurs­day in a Se­ries A round led by Spark Cap­i­tal, a ven­ture cap­i­tal firm that has pre­vi­ous­ly backed com­pa­nies such as Slack, Twit­ter and Ocu­lus.

“At the end of the day, rare dis­ease just re­quires a dif­fer­ent mod­el for drug de­vel­op­ment,” Yu said. “The chal­lenge is re­al­ly un­der­stand­ing what the dis­ease ac­tu­al­ly is and how you can best cre­ate and de­sign a pro­gram around ev­i­dence that ex­ists. It’s re­al­ly hard to de­sign a suc­cess­ful pro­gram if you don’t know much about the dis­ease.”

That re­quires pa­tient da­ta which, apart from be­ing scarce, are not all ac­ces­si­ble in one uni­ver­sal elec­tron­ic med­ical records sys­tem.

“So we get per­mis­sion from pa­tients … to be able to get all their records from their var­i­ous fa­cil­i­ties. And that’s both be­cause we want to em­pow­er pa­tients with that choice of opt­ing in to par­tic­i­pate in re­search, but it’s al­so a ne­ces­si­ty op­er­a­tional­ly for us to be able to get that in­for­ma­tion, be­cause it doesn’t sit in a cen­tral data­base some­where,” she said.

With the pa­tient’s con­sent, the da­ta are then col­lat­ed and dis­sem­i­nat­ed to com­pa­nies to give them a com­pre­hen­sive un­der­stand­ing of the dis­ease, and con­se­quent­ly, de­sign clin­i­cal tri­als, de­ter­mine what end­points and bio­mark­ers are rel­e­vant, and even ed­u­cate pay­ers and in­sur­ance com­pa­nies so they can cov­er the drugs up­on ap­proval.

There’s a lot that pa­tients can con­tribute to in terms of re­search that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly in­volve par­tic­i­pat­ing in a clin­i­cal tri­al, she added.

“For ex­am­ple, some of this da­ta could be used to sup­port and elim­i­nate the need for a place­bo con­trol arm be­cause you’re just look­ing at da­ta that al­ready ex­ists in the re­al world around pa­tients and their nat­ur­al pro­gres­sion of dis­ease,” Yu said. “And so that’s cer­tain­ly some­thing that every­one is very fo­cused on and hop­ing to use the da­ta for.”

Sound fa­mil­iar? A New York-based tech com­pa­ny called Flat­iron Health that was swal­lowed by Swiss gi­ant Roche in 2018, has sim­i­lar plans to use re­al-world ev­i­dence to re­place more tra­di­tion­al clin­i­cal tri­al da­ta to help the FDA make de­ci­sions for can­cer drugs.

But tra­di­tion­al ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als (RCTs) are con­sid­ered the gold stan­dard to prove if a com­pound or in­ter­ven­tion is safe and ef­fec­tive for its in­tend­ed use — they are used to show that a ben­e­fit or ad­verse event ob­served is not a mat­ter of chance or bias.

But giv­en lim­i­ta­tions such as strict in­clu­sion cri­te­ria, which typ­i­cal­ly dis­qual­i­fy old­er pa­tients and those suf­fer­ing from co-mor­bidi­ties, RCTs can be an in­ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of pa­tients in the re­al world. But skep­tics crit­i­cize that re­ly­ing sole­ly on re­al-world ev­i­dence could be dan­ger­ous, as the process has the po­ten­tial to in­tro­duce re­searcher bi­as­es, and is not sub­ject to the same method­olog­i­cal rig­or.

That be­ing said, un­like can­cer drug de­vel­op­ment, rare dis­ease tri­als are of­ten ham­pered by slow en­roll­ment due to the scarci­ty of pa­tients — and the FDA re­quires a much small­er body of ev­i­dence for de­ci­sion mak­ing. Sarep­ta Ther­a­peu­tics’ pi­o­neer­ing Duchenne mus­cu­lar dy­s­tro­phy (DMD) drug Ex­ondys 51, for in­stance, was ap­proved on the ba­sis of a tiny non-place­bo con­trolled tri­al that com­pared the ef­fect of the drug to the nat­ur­al course of the dis­ease.

De­spite stiff op­po­si­tion from with­in and out­side the agency from crit­ics who said da­ta were in­suf­fi­cient to war­rant ap­proval, the FDA cleared the drug for use in a sub­set of pa­tients with the rare mus­cle-wast­ing dis­ease in 2016, prompt­ing some to sug­gest the agency had bowed to pres­sure from pa­tient ad­vo­cates. On­ly in 2019 did Sarep­ta sub­mit plans for a con­fir­ma­to­ry tri­al, which is ex­pect­ed to be com­plet­ed by 2024. But in the mean­time, the com­pa­ny has since se­cured an­oth­er DMD ap­proval on the ba­sis of a 24 pa­tient study.

Yu, who pre­vi­ous­ly worked with con­sumer ge­net­ics com­pa­ny 23andme, set up RD­MD in late 2017 soon af­ter co-founder On­no Faber was di­ag­nosed with a rare ge­net­ic dis­ease called NF2 (Neu­rofi­bro­mato­sis Type 2), which af­fects 1 in 30,000 peo­ple.

“And so when we got to­geth­er, it was re­al­ly to fig­ure out how do we tack­le this — there are 7000 con­di­tions and like one in 10 peo­ple have a rare dis­ease that in ag­gre­gate, it’s a re­al­ly big prob­lem,” she not­ed.

On Thurs­day, the com­pa­ny al­so un­veiled a part­ner­ship with Bel­gium-based drug­mak­er UCB for up to five years to work on pro­gres­sive supranu­clear pal­sy (PSP), a rare neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­ease.

In ad­di­tion, RD­MD is al­so part­ner­ing with pa­tient ad­vo­ca­cy or­ga­ni­za­tions and physi­cian con­sor­tiums across 12 con­di­tions, in­clud­ing the Chil­dren’s Tu­mor Foun­da­tion, Cure San­fil­ip­po Foun­da­tion and Na­tion­al Tay-Sachs & Al­lied Dis­eases As­so­ci­a­tion.

The Se­ries A round al­so in­clud­ed the par­tic­i­pa­tion of ex­ist­ing seed in­vestors Lux Cap­i­tal, Vil­lage Glob­al and Garu­da Ven­tures, and new in­vestor Maveron. The mon­ey will be used, among oth­er things, to ex­pand in­to a fur­ther 20 rare con­di­tions and en­sure the con­ti­nu­ity of re­search pro­grams through­out the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic.

In his­toric Covid-19 ad­comm, vac­cine ex­perts de­bate a sea of ques­tions — but of­fer no clear an­swers

The most widely anticipated and perhaps most widely watched meeting in the FDA’s 113-year history ended late Thursday night with a score of questions and very few answers.

For nearly 9 hours, 18 different outside experts listened to public health agencies and foundations present how the United States’ Covid-19 vaccine program developed through October, and they debated where it should go from there: Were companies testing the right metrics in their massive trials? How long should they track patients before declaring a vaccine safe or effective? Should a vaccine, once authorized, be given to the volunteers in the placebo arm of a trial?

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Michel Vounatsos, Biogen CEO (via YouTube)

UP­DAT­ED: Bio­gen spot­lights a pair of painful pipeline set­backs as ad­u­canum­ab show­down looms at the FDA

Biogen has flagged a pair of setbacks in the pipeline, spotlighting the final failure for a one-time top MS prospect while scrapping a gene therapy for SMA after the IND was put on hold due to toxicity.

Both failures will raise the stakes even higher on aducanumab, the Alzheimer’s drug that Biogen is betting the ranch on, determined to pursue an FDA OK despite significant skepticism they can make it with mixed results and a reliance on post hoc data mining. And the failures are being reported as Biogen was forced to cut its profit forecast for 2020 as a generic rival started to erode their big franchise drug.

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A top drug pro­gram at Bay­er clears a high bar for CKD — open­ing the door to an FDA pitch

Over the past 4 years, Bayer has been steering a major trial through a pivotal program to see if their drug finerenone could slow down the pace of chronic kidney disease in patients suffering from both CKD as well as Type 2 diabetes.

Today, their team jumped on a virtual meeting hosted by the American Society of Nephrology to offer a solid set of pivotal data to demonstrate that the drug can delay dialysis or a kidney replacement as well as cardio disease, while also adding some worrying signs of hyperkalemia among the patients taking the drug. And they’re hustling it straight to regulators in search of an approval for kidney disease and cardio patients — one of the toughest challenges in the book, as demonstrated by repeated past failures.

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Biond­Vax stock im­plodes af­ter a big PhI­II gam­ble for its uni­ver­sal flu vac­cine fails

After flying high on Wall Street for the last few months of a pandemic, BiondVax’s stock and dreams of getting approval for its universal flu vaccine hit the windshield.

The Jerusalem-based biotech announced on Friday that its only clinical candidate, M-001, failed both primary and secondary endpoints in a Phase III study. There was no statistically significant difference in reduction of flu illness and severity between the vaccine and placebo groups, according to the company. The vaccine did prove safe, if ineffective, BiondVax said.

Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca CEO (Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: FDA gives As­traZeneca the thumbs-up to restart PhI­II Covid-19 vac­cine tri­als, and J&J is prepar­ing to re­sume its study

Several countries had restarted their portions of AstraZeneca’s global Phase III Covid-19 vaccine trial after the study was paused worldwide in early September, but the US notably stayed on the sidelines — until now. Friday afternoon the pharma giant announced the all clear from US regulators. And on top of that, J&J announced Friday evening that it’s preparing to resume its own Phase III vaccine trial.

Bo Cumbo, AavantiBio CEO (file photo)

Bo Cum­bo jumps from the top com­mer­cial post at Sarep­ta to the helm of a gene ther­a­py start­up with some in­flu­en­tial back­ers, big plans and $107M

After a 7-year stretch building the commercial team at Sarepta, longtime drug salesman Bo Cumbo is jumping to the entrepreneurial side of the business, taking the helm of a startup that’s got several deep-pocket investors. And he’s not just bringing his experience in selling drugs.

He tells me that when he told Sarepta CEO Doug Ingram about it, his boss got excited about the venture and opted to jump in with a $15 million investment from Sarepta to add to the launch money, alongside 3 of the busiest investors in biotech.

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Ul­tragenyx in­jects $40M to grab Solid's mi­crody­s­trophin trans­gene — while side­step­ping the AAV9 vec­tor that stirred up safe­ty fears

Since before Ilan Ganot started Solid Bio to develop a gene therapy for kids like his son, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Ultragenyx CEO Emil Kakkis has been watching and advising the former investment banker as he navigated the deep waters of drug development.

Just as Solid is getting back up on its feet after a yearlong clinical hold, Kakkis has decided to jump in for a formal alliance.

With a $40 million upfront, Ultragenyx is grabbing 14.45% of Solid’s shares $SLDB and the rights to its microdystrophin construct for use in combination with AAV8 vectors. Solid’s lead program, which utilizes AAV9, remains unaffected. The company also retains rights to other applications of its transgene.

Adam Koppel and Jeffrey Schwartz, Bain

Bain ex­ecs Adam Kop­pel and Jef­frey Schwartz line up $125M for their first blank check deal as Wall Street con­tin­ues to em­brace biotech

Adam Koppel and Jeffrey Schwartz have jumped into the blank check game, raising $125 million for a stock listing in search of a company.

Their SPAC, BCLS Acquisition Corp, raised $125 million this week, with a line on $25 million more as it scouts for a biotech in search of money and a place on Wall Street.

The two principals at Bain Life Sciences have been on a romp since they set up the Bain operation 4 years ago. Their S-1 spells out a track record of 22 deals totaling $650 million for the life sciences group, which led to 9 IPOs.

Covid-19 roundup: An mR­NA play­er gets a boost out of the lat­est round of an­i­mal da­ta; Phase­Bio pulls the plug on treat­ment tri­al

The big tell for CureVac $CVAC is coming up with a looming early-stage readout on their mRNA Covid-19 vaccine in the clinic. But for now they’ll make do with an upbeat assessment on the preclinical animal data they used to get into the clinic.

Researchers for the German biotech say they got the high antibody titers and T cell activation they were looking for, lining up a hamster challenge to demonstrate — in a simple model — that the vaccine could protect the furry creatures. Like the other mRNA vaccines, the drug sends instructions to spur cells to decorate themselves with the distinctive spike on the virus to elicit an immune response.