Manny Simons, Akouos CEO (Harvard Business School via YouTube)

Add ear gene ther­a­py com­pa­ny Ak­ou­os to the ever-grow­ing list of IPOs amid Covid-19

For in­vestors look­ing to cash in on a bur­geon­ing ear ther­a­py space, the lat­est biotech an­gling for a pub­lic de­but could be mu­sic to their ears.

Fresh off a $105 mil­lion raise in March, ear gene ther­a­py com­pa­ny Ak­ou­os is look­ing for an­oth­er $100 mil­lion for a chance to dance on the Nas­daq well be­fore its lead prod­uct en­ters the clin­ic.

Hear­ing aids and cochlear im­plants do ad­dress ear dam­age caused by ge­net­ics, noise, ag­ing, or drugs, but noth­ing quite cures or in­deed tar­gets the bi­o­log­i­cal un­der­pin­nings of hear­ing loss — this is the gap Ak­ou­os and a hand­ful of oth­ers in the space want to bridge.

“I think some of the ear­ly ef­forts in the hear­ing space have been drawn to the largest af­fect­ed pop­u­la­tions where there hap­pens to be less clar­i­ty on the un­der­ly­ing bi­ol­o­gy mech­a­nism,” chief Man­ny Si­mons said in a pre­vi­ous in­ter­view with End­points News. “So we’re fo­cus­ing our at­ten­tion on forms of hear­ing loss that we feel are well-un­der­stood, well-char­ac­ter­ized, where we can po­ten­tial­ly ad­dress the un­der­ly­ing cause.”

The com­pa­ny’s lead ex­per­i­men­tal ther­a­py AK-OTOF is en­gi­neered to treat hear­ing loss due to mu­ta­tions in the gene that en­codes otofer­lin, a pro­tein that en­ables the sen­so­ry cells to ac­ti­vate au­di­to­ry neu­rons that car­ry elec­tron­i­cal­ly en­cod­ed acoustic in­for­ma­tion to the brain, which al­lows us to hear. Ak­ou­os plans to sub­mit an ap­pli­ca­tion to take the drug in­to hu­man stud­ies next year, and gen­er­ate ear­ly-stage da­ta in 2022.

Si­mons, who found­ed the com­pa­ny in 2016, ini­tial­ly flirt­ed with the idea of be­com­ing a mu­si­cian, grow­ing up play­ing the pi­ano and the trum­pet. He met his wife at a glee club at Har­vard. For his bach­e­lor’s de­gree, he had the op­por­tu­ni­ty to es­sen­tial­ly cre­ate his own course of study: to un­der­stand how the brain process­es mu­sic, on the ba­sis of imag­ing stud­ies. That path led to the ear — to de­ci­pher how sound is en­cod­ed in­to a neur­al im­pulse that can ex­tend deep in­to the brain.

Af­ter get­ting his first taste of en­tre­pre­neur­ship in the pro­lif­ic lab of drug de­liv­ery re­searcher Bob Langer, he got his bio­phar­ma train­ing wheels off with stints at Third Rock backed-Warp Dri­ve Bio and Voy­ager Ther­a­peu­tics (nei­ther of which were ear fo­cused). But when he learned that AAV vec­tors with po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions for the ear were be­ing de­vel­oped in a lab­o­ra­to­ry at Mass­a­chu­setts Eye and Ear, Si­mons seized the op­por­tu­ni­ty to get a hear­ing-fo­cused gene ther­a­py com­pa­ny off the ground.

Af­ter se­cur­ing a sweet $7.5 mil­lion in seed fund­ing in 2018, Ak­ou­os scored $50 mil­lion in a Se­ries A round in 2018, led by 5AM and New En­ter­prise As­so­ci­ates.

Ak­ou­os, akin to some oth­ers in the gene and cell ther­a­py space, is in­vest­ing heav­i­ly in man­u­fac­tur­ing in­fra­struc­ture — hav­ing tak­en note that the com­plex man­u­fac­tur­ing process for these kinds of ther­a­pies has be­come some­thing of an Achilles heel in the field when it comes to adop­tion if the pro­duc­tion ap­pa­ra­tus is not up to scratch. For in­stance, the up­take of CAR-T ther­a­pies — No­var­tis’ Kym­ri­ah and Gilead’s Yescar­ta — un­der­whelmed ini­tial ex­pec­ta­tions, de­spite their abun­dant promise. The up­take of Kym­ri­ah was plagued by man­u­fac­tur­ing prob­lems, and de­spite No­var­tis’ at­tempt to ex­pand its ca­pac­i­ty, sales have dis­ap­point­ed com­mer­cial­ly, giv­ing Yescar­ta an edge in the mar­ket.

Ak­ou­os is build­ing its own in­fra­struc­ture to man­u­fac­ture vec­tors for its slate of ex­per­i­men­tal ther­a­pies, which al­so in­clude ge­net­ic med­i­cines for the most com­mon forms of hear­ing loss, such as age-re­lat­ed and noise-in­duced hear­ing loss. The com­pa­ny is al­so plan­ning on build­ing a plant to process gene ther­a­py batch­es to sup­port ac­tiv­i­ties through Phase I/II clin­i­cal tri­als for prod­uct can­di­dates be­yond AK-OTOF — part­ner Lon­za will help man­u­fac­ture AK-OTOF while it is shep­herd­ed through clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment.

The com­pa­ny plans to list on the Nas­daq un­der the sym­bol ‘AKUS’ amid a broad­er rush of bio­phar­ma com­pa­nies that are mak­ing their way to the pub­lic mar­kets de­spite the dis­rup­tion of Covid-19. In­deed, in­vestor ap­petites have ap­peared seem­ing­ly in­sa­tiable giv­en the raft of splashy IPOs in re­cent weeks, in­clud­ing a $424 mil­lion de­but for a J&J-part­nered Chi­nese biotech Leg­end Biotech, mark­ing one of the largest pub­lic rais­es in biotech his­to­ry.

Mean­while, there are a host of ri­vals in the broad­er ear-fo­cused space. Al­so in Boston, Ak­ou­os’ home, is Deci­bel Ther­a­peu­tics, work­ing on re­gen­er­a­tion by tar­get­ing tiny hairs that grow in the in­ner ear to ad­dress con­gen­i­tal hear­ing loss or age-re­lat­ed bal­ance dis­or­ders. Fre­quen­cy Ther­a­peu­tics has a mid-stage hair cell re­gen­er­a­tion pro­gram us­ing prog­en­i­tor cells.

Across the At­lantic, UK-based Rin­ri Ther­a­peu­tics is work­ing on treat­ing hear­ing loss by trans­plant­i­ng ot­ic neur­al prog­en­i­tor cells in­to the in­ner ear. Am­s­ter­dam-based Au­dion Ther­a­peu­tics has a com­pound in-li­censed from Eli Lil­ly, which is de­signed to turn on a chem­i­cal switch to pro­duce new sen­so­ry hair cells from oth­er cells in the in­ner ear to im­prove hear­ing.

The Price of Re­lief: Ex­plor­ing So­lu­tions to the Ris­ing Costs of On­col­o­gy Drugs

In 2020, The National Cancer Institute estimated about 1.8 million new cases of cancer diagnosed in the United States, while the costs associated with treatment therapies continued to escalate. Given the current legislative climate on drug pricing, it’s never been more important to look at the evolution of drug pricing globally and control concerns of sustainable and affordable treatments in oncology.

Lat­est news on Pfiz­er's $3B+ JAK1 win; Pacts over M&A at #JPM22; 2021 by the num­bers; Bio­gen's Aduhelm reck­on­ing; The sto­ry of sotro­vimab; 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.

For those of you who attended #JPM22 in any shape or form, we hope you had a fruitful time. Regardless of how you spent the past hectic week, may your weekend be just what you need it to be.

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A $3B+ peak sales win? Pfiz­er thinks so, as FDA of­fers a tardy green light to its JAK1 drug abroc­i­tinib

Back in the fall of 2020, newly crowned Pfizer chief Albert Bourla confidently put their JAK1 inhibitor abrocitinib at the top of the list of blockbuster drugs in the late-stage pipeline with a $3 billion-plus peak sales estimate.

Since then it’s been subjected to serious criticism for the safety warnings associated with the class, held back by a cautious FDA and questioned when researchers rolled out a top-line boast that their heavyweight contender had beaten the champ in the field of atopic dermatitis — Dupixent — in a head-to-head study.

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Robert Califf, FDA commissioner nominee (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Rob Califf ad­vances as Biden's FDA nom­i­nee, with a close com­mit­tee vote

Rob Califf’s second confirmation process as FDA commissioner is already much more difficult than his near unanimous confirmation under the Obama administration.

The Senate Health Committee on Thursday voted 13-8 in favor of advancing Califf’s nomination to a full Senate vote. Several Democrats voted against Califf, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Maggie Hassan. Several other Democrats who aren’t on the committee, like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, also said Thursday that they would not vote for Califf. Markey, Hassan and Manchin all previously expressed reservations about the prospect of Janet Woodcock as an FDA commissioner nominee too.

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Michel Vounatsos, Biogen CEO (World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard)

Bio­gen vows to fight CM­S' draft cov­er­age de­ci­sion for Aduhelm be­fore April fi­nal­iza­tion

Biogen executives made clear in an investor call Thursday they are not preparing to run a new CMS-approved clinical trial for their controversial Alzheimer’s drug anytime soon.

As requested in a draft national coverage decision from CMS earlier this week, Biogen and other anti-amyloid drugs will need to show “a meaningful improvement in health outcomes” for Alzheimer’s patients in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial to get paid for their drugs, rather than just the reduction in amyloid plaques that won Aduhelm its accelerated approval in June.

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CRO own­er pleads guilty to ob­struct­ing FDA in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to fal­si­fied clin­i­cal tri­al da­ta

The co-owner of a Florida-based clinical research site pleaded guilty to lying to an FDA investigator during a 2017 inspection, revealing that she falsely portrayed part of a GlaxoSmithKline pediatric asthma study as legitimate, when in fact she knew that certain data had been falsified, the Department of Justice said Wednesday.

Three other employees — Yvelice Villaman Bencosme, Lisett Raventos and Maytee Lledo — previously pleaded guilty and were sentenced in connection with falsifying data associated with the trial at the CRO Unlimited Medical Research.

Susan Galbraith, AstraZeneca EVP, Oncology R&D

Can­cer pow­er­house As­traZeneca rolls the dice on a $75M cash bet on a buzzy up­start in the on­col­o­gy field

After establishing itself in the front ranks of cancer drug developers and marketers, AstraZeneca is putting its scientific shoulder — and a significant amount of cash — behind the wheel of a brash new upstart in the biotech world.

The pharma giant trumpeted news this morning that it is handing over $75 million upfront to ally itself with Scorpion Therapeutics, one of those biotechs that was newly birthed by some top scientific, venture and executive talent and bequeathed with a fortune by way of a bankroll to advance an only hazily explained drug platform. And they are still very much in the discovery and preclinical phase.

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‘Skin­ny la­bels’ on gener­ics can save pa­tients mon­ey, re­search shows, but re­cent court de­ci­sions cloud fu­ture

New research shows how generic drug companies can successfully market a limited number of approved indications for a brand name drug, prior to coming to market for all of the indications. But several recent court decisions have created a layer of uncertainty around these so-called “skinny” labels.

While courts have generally allowed generic manufacturers to use their statutorily permitted skinny-label approvals, last summer, a federal circuit court found that Teva Pharmaceuticals was liable for inducing prescribers and patients to infringe GlaxoSmithKline’s patents through advertising and marketing practices that suggested Teva’s generic, with its skinny label, could be employed for the patented uses.

A patient in Alaska receiving an antibody infusion to prevent Covid hospitalizations in September. All but one of these treatments has been rendered useless by Omicron (Rick Bowmer/AP Images)

How a tiny Swiss lab and two old blood sam­ples cre­at­ed one of the on­ly ef­fec­tive drugs against Omi­cron (and why we have so lit­tle of it)

Exactly a decade before a novel coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, Davide Corti — a newly-minted immunologist with frameless glasses and a quick laugh — walked into a cramped lab on the top floor of an office building two hours outside Zurich. He had only enough money for two technicians and the ceiling was so low in parts that short stature was a job requirement, but Corti believed it’d be enough to test an idea he thought could change medicine.

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