Robert Nelsen (Illustration by Emma Kumer for Endpoints News)

Af­ter Big Phar­ma aban­doned in­fec­tious dis­eases, 5 biotech con­trar­i­ans de­cid­ed to go all in. Then Covid-19 changed every­thing

Bob Nelsen had been quietly wondering how to eradicate viruses for years, before one day in 2015, he welcomed a pair of immunologists into the ARCH Venture Partners offices on the 34th floor of Seattle’s Wells Fargo Building.

Louis Picker and Klaus Früh, professors at Oregon Health & Science University, had by then spent 5 years running around the country in search of funding for their startup, TomegaVax, and Früh, at least, was nearing wit’s end. The Gates Foundation was interested but told them they needed other investors. Investors told them to come back with more data, pharmaceutical executives said they’re in the wrong game — too little money to be made fighting infectious disease. Still, a well-connected board member named Bob More landed them a meeting with the coveted venture capitalist, and so, in a narrow conference room overlooking the Puget Sound, Picker prepared to again explain the idea he had spent 15 years on: re-engineering a benign microbe into the first vaccines for HIV and better ones for hepatitis and tuberculosis.

“This lightbulb went on his head,” Picker recalled in a recent interview. “Most of them just didn’t get it. And Bob’s hit.”

By that point, Nelsen was more than just a venture capitalist. Scraggly and greying but no less opinionated at 52, he was mobbed at biotech conferences, having earned a reputation for crass wisdom and uncanny foresight, for making big bets on big ideas that changed medicine. Those ideas included DNA sequencing, which he first cut a check for in the 90s, and leveraging the immune system to tackle cancer. He earned millions making billion-dollar companies.

Yet for years he had harbored an almost singular obsession: “I hate viruses,” he told Forbes in 2016. He told me he was “pissed off” at them. The obsession drove him to his first biotech investment in 1993, for an inhalable flu vaccine approved a decade later and still in use. And it drove him to invest in CAR-T as a potential cure for HIV, years before it proved a wildly effective treatment for some cancers.

Now, listening to Picker talk about T cells and antibodies and the curious biology of cytomegalovirus, Nelsen began wondering if it was time for another bet. Picker’s technology was not only promising, he reasoned, it could be the basis of a company that changed how researchers approached viruses. Instead of trying to come up with an antidote for every pathogen, you could do what cancer researchers had learned to do, and harness the immune system to do the work for you.

This wasn’t a popular opinion at the time. “It’s like the least trendy idea in the world,” Nelsen told me. “People would say, ‘Why the hell are you going into infectious disease?’”

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Biotech in­vestors and CEOs see two paths to growth, but are they equal­ly vi­able?

The dynamic in the biotech market has been highly volatile in the last few years, from the high peaks immediately after the COVID vaccine in 2021, to the lowest downturns of the last 20 years in 2022. This uncertainty makes calling the exact timing of the market’s turn something of a fool’s errand, according to Dr. Chen Yu, Founder and Managing Partner of TCG Crossover (TCG X). He speaks with RBC’s Noël Brown, Head of US Biotechnology Investment Banking, about the market’s road ahead and two possible paths for growth.

Casey McPherson shows his daughters Rose (left) and Weston around Everlum Bio, a lab that he co-founded to spark a treatment for Rose and others with ultra-rare conditions. (Ilana Panich-Linsman)

Fa­ther starts lab af­ter in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty is­sues stymie rare dis­ease drug de­vel­op­ment

Under bright lab lights, Casey McPherson holds his 6-year-old daughter, Rose. His free hand directs Rose’s gaze toward a computer screen with potential clues in treating her one-of-a kind genetic condition.

Gray specks on the screen show her cells that scientists reprogrammed with the goal of zeroing in on a custom medicine. McPherson co-founded the lab, Everlum Bio, to spark a treatment for Rose — and others like her. A regarded singer-songwriter, McPherson never imagined going into drug development.

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Fireside chat between Hal Barron and John Carroll, UKBIO19

It’s time we talked about bio­phar­ma — live in Lon­don next week

Zoom can only go so far. And I think at this stage, we’ve all tested the limits of staying in touch — virtually. So I’m particularly happy now that we’ve revved up the travel machine to point myself to London for the first time in several years.

Whatever events we have lined up, we’ve always built in plenty of opportunities for all of us to get together and talk. For London, live, I plan to be right out front, meeting with and chatting with the small crowd of biopharma people we are hosting on October 12 at Silicon Valley Bank’s London headquarters. And there’s a lengthy mixer at the end I’m most looking forward to, with several networking openings between sessions.

Car­olyn Bertozzi (Illustration: Assistant editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News)

Car­olyn Bertozzi, re­peat biotech founder and launch­er of a field, shares in chem­istry No­bel win

Carolyn Bertozzi, predicted by some to become a Nobel laureate, clinched one of the world’s top awards in the wee hours of Wednesday, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside a repeat winner and a Copenhagen researcher.

The Stanford professor, Morten Meldal of University of Copenhagen and 2001-awardee K. Barry Sharpless of Scripps shared the prize equally. The Nobel is sometimes split in quarters and/or halves.

Take­da to pull key hy­poparathy­roidism drug from the mar­ket af­ter years of man­u­fac­tur­ing woes

Takeda on Tuesday morning made an announcement that almost 3,000 people with the rare disease known as hypoparathyroidism were fearing.

Due to unresolved supply issues and manufacturing woes, Takeda said it will cut its losses and discontinue its hypoparathyroidism drug, known as Natpara (parathyroid hormone), halting all manufacturing of the drug by the end of 2024, but the entire inventory will be available until depleted or expired, a company spokesperson said via email.

Pfizer and BioNTech's original Marvel comic book links evolving Covid vaccine science to Avengers' evolving villain-fighting tools.(Source: Pfizer LinkedIn post)

Pfiz­er, BioN­Tech part­ner with Mar­vel for Avengers and Covid-fight­ing com­ic book

Pfizer and BioNTech are collaborating with Marvel to celebrate “everyday” people getting Covid-19 vaccines in a custom comic book.

In the “Everyday Heroes” digital comic book, an evolving Ultron, one of the Avengers’ leading villains, is defeated by Captain America, Ironman and others. The plotline and history of Ultron is explained by a grandfather who is waiting with his family at a clinic for Covid-19 vaccinations.

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FDA+ roundup: Ad­comm date set for Cy­to­ki­net­ics heart drug; New gener­ic drug guid­ance to re­duce fa­cil­i­ty de­lays

The FDA has set Dec. 13 as the day that its Cardiovascular and Renal Drugs Advisory Committee will review Cytokinetics’ potential heart drug, setting up a key vote ahead of a Feb. 28, 2023 PDUFA date.

The drug, known as omecamtiv mecarbil, read out its first Phase III in November 2020, hitting the primary endpoint of reducing the odds of hospitalization or other urgent care for heart failure by 8%. But it also missed a key secondary endpoint analysts had pegged as the key to breaking into the market, failing to significantly differ in reducing cardiovascular death from placebo.

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David Cory, Eiger BioPharmaceuticals CEO (via MultiVu)

FDA re­jects Eiger's emer­gency use re­quest for re­pur­posed Covid-19 treat­ment

Eiger BioPharmaceuticals is no longer planning to submit an emergency use application to the FDA.

The Palo Alto, CA-based biotech had hoped to repurpose its hepatitis D treatment, peginterferon lambda, for mild-to-moderate Covid-19 — submitting a request to the FDA for a pre-EUA meeting back in September with data from a Phase III platform trial in hand.

However, that meeting was rejected by federal regulators because of “concerns about the conduct of the TOGETHER study,” per an Eiger statement.

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Af­ter Covid set­back, Val­ne­va lines up $100M for Pfiz­er-al­lied Ly­me dis­ease PhI­II

Valneva has secured €102.9 million (around $99.9 million USD) in a share offering to push forward its Pfizer-partnered Lyme disease vaccine and a jab for chikungunya that awaits an FDA decision.

The French vaccine maker largely snagged the near $100 million from Deep Track Capital and local state-owned Bpifrance, the company said Tuesday night. The capital injection is nearly equal to the amount Pfizer paid to nab equity in the company earlier this summer as part of the duo’s vaccine tie-up.