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.”

Noubar Afeyan, Flagship founder and CEO (Victor Boyko/Getty Images)

Flag­ship launch­es Sen­da Bio­sciences with an $88M back­ing, look­ing to pi­o­neer the field of 'In­ter­sys­tems Bi­ol­o­gy'

Flagship Pioneering has a fresh company out this week, one that aims to lay the groundwork for a whole new discipline.

Senda Biosciences launched Wednesday with $88 million in Flagship cash. The goal? Gain insights into the molecular connections between people and coevolved nonhuman species like plants and bacteria, paving the way for “Intersystems Biology.”

Guillaume Pfefer has been tapped to run the show, a 25-year biotech veteran who comes from GSK after leading the development of the company’s shingles vaccine.

Daphne Koller, Getty

Bris­tol My­er­s' Richard Har­g­reaves pays $70M to launch a neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion al­liance with a star play­er in the ma­chine learn­ing world

Bristol Myers Squibb is turning to one of the star upstarts in the machine learning world to go back to the drawing board and come up with the disease models needed to find drugs that can work against two of the toughest targets in the neuro world.

Daphne Koller’s well-funded insitro is getting $70 million in cash and near-term milestones to use their machine learning platform to create induced pluripotent stem cell-derived disease models for ALS and frontotemporal dementia.

Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks at the Rose Garden, May 26, 2020 (Evan Vucci/AP Images)

Eli Lil­ly lines up a block­buster deal for Covid-19 an­ti­body, right af­ter it failed a NI­AID tri­al

Two days after Eli Lilly conceded that its antibody bamlanivimab was a flop in hospitalized Covid-19 patients, the US government is preparing to make it a blockbuster.

The pharma giant reported early Wednesday that it struck a deal to supply the feds with 300,000 vials of the drug at a cost of $375 million — once it gets an EUA stamp from the FDA. And once that 2-month supply deal is done, the government has an option on another 650,000 doses on the same terms — which could potentially add another $812 million.

Patrick Soon-Shiong at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, Jan. 13, 2020 (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter falling be­hind the lead­ers, dissed by some ex­perts, biotech show­man Patrick Soon-Sh­iong fi­nal­ly gets his Covid-19 vac­cine ready for a tri­al. But can it live up to the hype?

In January, when dozens of scientists rushed to start making a vaccine for the then-novel coronavirus, they were joined by an unlikely compatriot: Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire doctor most famous for making big, controversial promises on cancer research.

Soon-Shiong had spent the last 4 years on his “Cancer Moonshot,” but part of his project meant buying a small Seattle biotech that specialized in making common-cold vectors, called adenoviruses, to train the immune system. The billionaire had been using those vectors for oncology, but the company had also developed vaccine candidates for H1N1, Lassa fever and other viruses. When the outbreak began, he pivoted.

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Ar­cus and As­traZeneca part­ner on a high stakes an­ti-TIG­IT/PD-L1 PhI­II can­cer study, look­ing to im­prove on a stan­dard of care

For AstraZeneca, the PACIFIC trial in Stage III non-small cell lung cancer remains one of the big triumphs for AstraZeneca’s oncology R&D group. It not only made their PD-L1 Imfinzi a franchise player with a solid advance in a large niche of the lung cancer market, the study — which continues to offer data on the long-range efficacy of their drug — also helped salve the vicious sting of the failure of the CTLA-4 combo in the MYSTIC study.

No­var­tis buys a new gene ther­a­py for vi­sion loss, and this is one pre­clin­i­cal ven­ture that did­n't come cheap

Cyrus Mozayeni got excited when he began to explore the academic work of Ehud Isacoff and John G. Flannery at UC Berkeley.

Together, they were engaged in finding a gene therapy approach to pan-genotypic vision restoration in patients with photoreceptor-based blindness, potentially restoring the vision of a broad group of patients. And they did it by using a vector to deliver the genetic sequence for light sensing proteins.

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Q32 Bio grabs $60M to kick off hu­man stud­ies for next-gen com­ple­ment drugs — with some Covid-19 tweaks along the way

For a company that launched in the early months of the pandemic, Q32 Bio had its fair share of run-ins with the new normals under Covid-19.

The original plan, for instance, was to conduct first-in-human studies of the IL-7 receptor antibody it licensed from Bristol Myers Squibb in the Netherlands. But they realized shortly after that while the country was beginning to open up clinical trials, there were additional restrictions on drugs that tampered with immunological mechanisms.

Hal Barron, GSK R&D chief

GSK's Hal Bar­ron ax­es a once-prized drug from J&J, con­tin­u­ing shift away from res­pi­ra­to­ry

Hal Barron’s revamp of the GlaxoSmithKline pipeline continued yesterday, as the British pharma announced they axed an asthma drug they once promised over $200 million to acquire.

Then led by CEO Andrew Witty and R&D chief Patrick Vallance, GSK picked up the drug, known elegantly as GSK3772847, from J&J in 2016, hoping to expand on the beachhead in asthma they had established the year prior with Breo Ellipta. They promised up to $227 million in upfront payments and milestones.

Christian Rommel (via Roche)

Bay­er fol­lows R&D deal spree by raid­ing Roche's can­cer group for its new re­search chief

The day after Bayer signed off on a $4 billion deal designed to put the company among the leaders in gene therapy development, the pharma giant has recruited a new chief for its R&D division. And they opted for an expert in the cancer field.

Christian Rommel, Roche’s head of discovery and early-stage oncology development, has been tapped to take over the job. Joerg Moeller, who got the top research post after early- and late-stage development roles were combined 2 years ago, is hitting the exit “to pursue other career opportunities.”

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