Af­ter build­ing a rep as an ar­chi­tect of ex­per­i­ments, Rx­Cel­er­ate plants its flag in Amer­i­ca

When XO1 was bought out by J&J a cou­ple of years ago, the seed in­vestors at In­dex, now Medicxi, made it Ex­hib­it A for their busi­ness mod­el on cre­at­ing a port­fo­lio of as­set-based biotechs.

What start­ed off with a bit of sci­en­tif­ic sleuthing by a pair of re­searchers at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty — Trevor Baglin and Jim Hunt­ing­ton — led to an an­ti­body pro­gram for a drug dubbed ichor­cum­ab that promised to po­ten­tial­ly act as an an­ti­co­ag­u­lant, with­out the in­her­ent risk of se­vere bleed­ing that in­evitably haunts the class.

Patrick Ver­heyen, who was run­ning the J&J In­no­va­tion of­fice in Lon­don at the time, called this deal a prime ex­am­ple of the way the phar­ma gi­ant was able to reel in top sci­en­tif­ic pro­grams around the world.

But be­tween the chance dis­cov­ery based on an odd med­ical case dat­ing back to 2008 and J&J’s ac­qui­si­tion, XO1, with­out build­ing a staff or do­ing all the nor­mal things as­so­ci­at­ed with biotech star­tups, had to push through a crit­i­cal pre­clin­i­cal study that could prove it had some­thing of re­al val­ue.

Richard Ma­son

“What we re­al­ly need­ed to do in XO1,” XO1 for­mer chief and sole full time staffer Richard Ma­son tells me, “was to show this an­ti­body we cre­at­ed was an an­ti­co­ag­u­lant that didn’t in­crease bleed­ing risk.”

That’s nev­er been done in any sim­i­lar de­vel­op­ment pro­gram be­fore, by any­one.

To do that, Ma­son re­lied on a group in Cam­bridge, UK called Rx­Cel­er­ate. Co-found­ed by David Grainger, a Medicxi part­ner who al­so act­ed as chief sci­en­tif­ic of­fi­cer for XO1, the lab staff didn’t just run a pre­clin­i­cal study un­der con­tract. They built the study from the ground up, ques­tion­ing every step along the way in a field be­set by ques­tions of le­git­i­ma­cy and in­tegri­ty.

Says Ma­son: “They are the ar­chi­tects of the ex­per­i­ment.”

XO1’s ex­pe­ri­ence un­der­scores one of the hard truths about drug dis­cov­ery projects. The lit­er­a­ture is of­ten mis­lead­ing, the mod­els in use may be sus­pect, some­times some of the hard­ware de­scribed doesn’t even ex­ist, says Ma­son. And all of that was on dis­play in their ground­work on an­ti­co­ag­u­la­tion.

A sci­en­tist by train­ing, Grainger and his col­leagues at Medicxi have carved out a rep­u­ta­tion for com­bin­ing sci­en­tif­ic rig­or in ear­ly-stage re­search with a rep for carv­ing the hard costs of do­ing a start­up down to the bare es­sen­tials — in­clud­ing the cre­ative use of out­sourc­ing to keep their star­tups vir­tu­al.

Now Rx­Cel­er­ate has opened up a Boston/Cam­bridge of­fice to in­tro­duce their work un­der US EVP Lau­ra Hamil­ton, the for­mer BD chief at Mass­Bio.

David Grainger

“We are not a CRO,” Grainger tells me lev­el­ly. So I asked for a look at one case to ex­plain what they do. And that led me to Ma­son, who didn’t just do a deal with J&J — a few months lat­er he took Ver­heyen’s job run­ning J&J In­no­va­tion in Lon­don. (Ver­heyen was pro­mot­ed to run BD for all of J&J. Hunt­ing­ton, mean­while, caught the se­r­i­al en­tre­pre­neur bug and has since launched a se­ries of biotech up­starts out of his Cam­bridge lab.)

The way Rx­Cel­er­ate works, Ma­son says, “it starts with the ba­sic sci­ence and takes noth­ing for grant­ed.”

Jill Reck­less — the CEO at Rx­Cel­er­ate, who left with a group of re­searchers at Cam­bridge to launch the lab at Rx­Cel­er­ate with Grainger — start­ed by re­view­ing the lit­er­a­ture on throm­bo­sis and bleed­ing mod­els.

“We found that many of those pa­pers had some prob­lems with them,” says Ma­son. Then there was the rat tail clip mod­el used to mea­sure bleed­ing in ro­dents.

“We found sub­stan­tial prob­lems with the way that was done in the lit­er­a­ture,” adds Ma­son. “Prob­lems with re­pro­ducibil­i­ty.”

Rather than repli­cate bad sci­ence, Rx­Cel­er­ate cre­at­ed new mod­el ex­per­i­ments where nec­es­sary, and dou­bled down with larg­er an­i­mal mod­els to demon­strate po­ten­tial in hu­mans.

“What we are try­ing to of­fer is the abil­i­ty to out­source the think­ing be­hind drug de­vel­o­ment,” says Grainger. CROs are great for de­fined tasks, he adds, but when it comes to do­ing the ar­chi­tec­ture: “CROs don’t do that very well.”

Jill Reck­less

It’s the kind of work that ap­peals to any­one in a cash con­strained en­vi­ron­ment, says Reck­less, whether that’s a biotech start­up or a ma­jor bio­phar­ma, work­ing on a bud­get to see where it has as­sets of re­al val­ue to pur­sue. It’s all about stay­ing fo­cused while re­main­ing skep­ti­cal about what’s come be­fore.

“By not do­ing the things that don’t need to be done,” says Grainger,  “that’s where the bulk of the cost sav­ings come.”

How’s J&J’s team do­ing with XO1’s drug, now dubbed “9375”?

So far so good, says Ma­son, who vis­it­ed with the group in charge at J&J as they look for a next-gen­er­a­tion an­tithrom­bin to fol­low Xarel­to. They’re through Phase I and ex­am­in­ing next steps for Phase II.

Says Ma­son: “Stay tuned.”

BiTE® Plat­form and the Evo­lu­tion To­ward Off-The-Shelf Im­muno-On­col­o­gy Ap­proach­es

Despite rapid advances in the field of immuno-oncology that have transformed the cancer treatment landscape, many cancer patients are still left behind.1,2 Not every person has access to innovative therapies designed specifically to treat his or her disease. Many currently available immuno-oncology-based approaches and chemotherapies have brought long-term benefits to some patients — but many patients still need other therapeutic options.3

Is a pow­er­house Mer­ck team prepar­ing to leap past Roche — and leave Gilead and Bris­tol My­ers be­hind — in the race to TIG­IT dom­i­na­tion?

Roche caused quite a stir at ASCO with its first look at some positive — but not so impressive — data for their combination of Tecentriq with their anti-TIGIT drug tiragolumab. But some analysts believe that Merck is positioned to make a bid — soon — for the lead in the race to a second-wave combo immuno-oncology approach with its own ambitious early-stage program tied to a dominant Keytruda.

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FDA de­lays de­ci­sion on No­var­tis’ po­ten­tial block­buster MS drug, wip­ing away pri­or­i­ty re­view

So much for a speedy review.

In February, Novartis announced that an application for their much-touted multiple sclerosis drug ofatumumab had been accepted and, with the drug company cashing in on one of their priority review vouchers, the agency was due for a decision by June.

But with June less than 48 hours old, Novartis announced the agency has extended their review, pushing back the timeline for approval or rejection to September. The Swiss pharma filed the application in December, meaning their new schedule will be nearly in line with the standard 10-month window period had they not used the priority voucher.

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David Meline, incoming Moderna CFO

Am­gen vet David Meline finds a new CFO roost at Mod­er­na, tak­ing a ride on the Covid-19 tiger as de­part­ing ex­ec cash­es out with $12M

We found out a few weeks ago that Moderna CFO Lorence Kim isn’t waiting around to see how the biotech wunderkind makes out in its frantic race to field a messenger RNA vaccine that can quell Covid-19. And now we know who’s stepping on board to take his place in the latest move in the executive suite.

David Meline, who forged his rep during a 6-year run at Amgen, slipped out the exit right after his Q2 “retirement” party in California — presumably virtual — and started the next chapter of his career at a biotech company betting big on revolutionizing the vaccine R&D space.

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Joseph Kim, Inovio CEO (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

Caught in a stand­off with its con­tract man­u­fac­tur­er over Covid-19 vac­cine, In­ovio files suit in an at­tempt to break free while ri­vals race ahead

Inovio was one of the first vaccine developers to snag attention for a jab that their execs said promised to end the Covid-19 pandemic. Using their own unique DNA tech, CEO Joseph Kim said it took just 3 hours to work it out.

But while rivals are racing to the finish line with ambitious plans to make vast quantities of their vaccines with billions of dollars of deals, Inovio is still stuck at the starting line on manufacturing.

Leen Kawas, Athira CEO (Athira)

Can a small biotech suc­cess­ful­ly tack­le an Ever­est climb like Alzheimer’s? Athi­ra has $85M and some in­flu­en­tial back­ers ready to give it a shot

There haven’t been a lot of big venture rounds for biotech companies looking to run a Phase II study in Alzheimer’s.

The field has been a disaster over the past decade. Amyloid didn’t pan out as a target — going down in a litany of Phase III failures — and is now making its last stand at Biogen. Tau is a comer, but when you look around and all you see is destruction, the idea of backing a startup trying to find complex cocktails to swing the course of this devilishly complicated memory-wasting disease would daunt the pluckiest investors.

GSK presents case to ex­pand use of its lu­pus drug in pa­tients with kid­ney dis­ease, but the field is evolv­ing. How long will the mo­nop­oly last?

In 2011, GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta became the first biologic to win approval for lupus patients. Nine years on, the British drugmaker has unveiled detailed positive results from a study testing the drug in lupus patients with associated kidney disease — a post-marketing requirement from the initial FDA approval.

Lupus is a drug developer’s nightmare. In the last six decades, there has been just one FDA approval (Benlysta), with the field resembling a graveyard in recent years with a string of failures including UCB and Biogen’s late-stage flop, as well as defeats in Xencor and Sanofi’s programs. One of the main reasons the success has eluded researchers is because lupus, akin to cancer, is not just one disease — it really is a disease of many diseases, noted Al Roy, executive director of Lupus Clinical Investigators Network, an initiative of New York-based Lupus Research Alliance that claims it is the world’s leading private funder of lupus research, in an interview.

Covid-19 roundup: Mod­er­na read­ies to en­ter PhI­II in Ju­ly, As­traZeneca not far be­hind; EU ready to ne­go­ti­ate vac­cine ac­cess with $2.7B fund

Moderna may soon add another first to the Covid-19 vaccine race.

In March, the mRNA biotech was the first company to put a Covid-19 vaccine into humans. Next month, they may become the first company to put their vaccine into the large, late-stage trials that are needed to prove whether the vaccine is effective.

In an interview with JAMA editor Howard Bauchner, NIAID chief Anthony Fauci said that a 30,000-person, Phase III trial for Moderna’s vaccine could start in July. The news comes a week after Moderna began a Phase II study that will enroll several hundred people.

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José Basel­ga finds promise in new class of RNA-mod­i­fy­ing can­cer tar­gets, lock­ing in 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams with $55M

Having dived early into some of the RNA breakthroughs of the last decades — betting on Moderna’s mRNA tech and teaming up with Silence on the siRNA front — AstraZeneca is jumping into a new arena: going after proteins that modify RNA.

Their partner of choice is Accent Therapeutics, which is receiving $55 million in upfront payment to steer a selected preclinical program through to the end of Phase I. After AstraZeneca takes over, the Lexington, MA-based startup has the option to co-develop and co-commercialize in the US — and collect up to $1.1 billion in milestones in the long run. The deal also covers two other potential drug candidates.

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