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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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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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.

Stephen Hahn, FDA commissioner (AP Images)

As FDA sets the stage for the first Covid-19 vac­cine EUAs, some big play­ers are ask­ing for a tweak of the guide­lines

Setting the stage for an extraordinary one-day meeting of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee this Thursday, the FDA has cleared 2 experts of financial conflicts to help beef up the committee. And regulators went on to specify the safety, efficacy and CMC input they’re looking for on EUAs, before they move on to the full BLA approval process.

All of this has already been spelled out to the developers. But the devil is in the details, and it’s clear from the first round of posted responses that some of the top players — including J&J and Pfizer — would like some adjustments and added feedback. And on Thursday, the experts can offer their own thoughts on shaping the first OKs.

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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.

Dan O'Day, Gilead CEO (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: FDA anoints Gilead­'s remde­sivir as the Covid-19 treat­ment win­ner, hand­ing down full ap­proval — de­spite some deep skep­ti­cism

Seven months into the Covid-19 pandemic, the race to develop a treatment for the disease that’s proved to be the biggest health crisis in a century has an officially designated winner: Gilead. And they’re picking up the prize — worth billions in peak sales — despite a major study that concluded the drug was no help in reducing the number of people who die from the virus.

The FDA handed down a thumbs-up for remdesivir, the company announced Thursday afternoon, as the drug becomes the first fully approved treatment for Covid-19 in the US. Remdesivir, to be marketed as Veklury, will come with a label for treatment in adults and children older than 12 in Covid-19 cases that require hospitalization.

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Stephen Hoge, Moderna president (Moderna)

On morn­ing of FDA Covid-19 ad­comm, Mod­er­na com­pletes PhI­II en­roll­ment, putting them neck-and-neck with Pfiz­er

Weeks away from a potential EUA application, Moderna announced they have completed enrollment in their 30,000-person Phase III Covid-19 vaccine trial, with over a third of volunteers non-white and a quarter over the age of 65.

The announcement caps what has been the most closely-watched recruitment race in the history of drug development, as Pfizer and Moderna rushed to get enough volunteers to prove whether or not experimental vaccines could actually protect people from contracting Covid-19. Pfizer reached that mark on Sept. 15. Moderna said around the same time that they would slow down enrollment to ensure they enrolled enough participants from minority and at-risk groups.

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.

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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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.