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.”

BREAK­ING: Ab­b­Vie seals $63B deal to buy a trou­bled Al­ler­gan

Brent Saun­ders has found his way out of the cur­rent fix he’s in at Al­ler­gan. He’s sell­ing the com­pa­ny to Ab­b­Vie for a re­port­ed $63 bil­lion in the lat­est ex­am­ple of the hot M&A mar­ket in bio­phar­ma.

Ab­b­Vie has agreed to pay $188.24 a share for the trou­bled Al­ler­gan, re­flect­ing a 45% pre­mi­um as in­vestors bid up shares in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a much buzzed about com­pa­ny split. That price re­flects a sharp fall from the $330 peak for Al­ler­gan and Saun­ders 4 years ago — but much bet­ter than any­thing share­hold­ers had in mind for the near fu­ture.

UP­DAT­ED: In sur­prise switch, Bris­tol-My­ers is sell­ing off block­buster Ote­zla, promis­ing to com­plete Cel­gene ac­qui­si­tion — just lat­er

Apart from revealing its checkpoint inhibitor Opdivo blew a big liver cancer study on Monday, Bristol-Myers Squibb said its plans to swallow Celgene will require the sale of blockbuster psoriasis treatment Otezla to keep the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at bay.

The announcement — which has potentially delayed the completion of the takeover to early 2020 — irked investors, triggering the New York-based drugmaker’s shares to tumble Monday morning in premarket trading.

Celgene’s Otezla, approved in 2014 for psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis, is a rising star. It generated global sales of $1.6 billion last year, up from the nearly $1.3 billion in 2017. Apart from the partial overlap of Bristol-Myers injectable Orencia, the company’s rival oral TYK2 psoriasis drug is in late-stage development, after the firm posted encouraging mid-stage data on the drug, BMS-986165, last fall. With Monday’s decision, it appears Bristol-Myers is favoring its experimental drug, and discounting Otezla’s future.

The move blindsided some analysts. Credit Suisse’s Vamil Divan noted just days ago:

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Novotech CEO Dr. John Moller

Novotech CRO Award­ed Frost & Sul­li­van Best Biotech CRO Asia-Pa­cif­ic 2019

Known in the in­dus­try as the Asia-Pa­cif­ic CRO, Novotech is now lead CRO ser­vices provider for the grow­ing num­ber of in­ter­na­tion­al biotechs se­lect­ing the re­gion for their stud­ies.

Re­flect­ing this Asia-Pa­cif­ic growth, Novotech staff num­bers are up 20% since De­cem­ber 2018 to 600 in-house clin­i­cal re­search peo­ple across a full range of ser­vices, across the re­gion.

Novotech’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties have been rec­og­nized by an­a­lysts like Frost & Sul­li­van, most re­cent­ly with the pres­ti­gious Asia-Pa­cif­ic CRO Biotech of the year award for best prac­tices in clin­i­cal re­search for biotechs for the fifth year. See oth­er awards here.

Fol­low­ing news of job cuts in Eu­ro­pean R&D ops, Sanofi con­firms it’s of­fer­ing US work­ers an 'ear­ly ex­it'

Ear­li­er in the week we learned that Sanofi was bring­ing out the bud­get ax to trim 466 R&D jobs in Eu­rope, re­tool­ing its ap­proach to car­dio as re­search chief John Reed beefed up their work in can­cer and gene ther­a­pies. And we’re end­ing the week with news that the phar­ma gi­ant has al­so been qui­et­ly re­duc­ing staff in the US, tar­get­ing hun­dreds of jobs as the com­pa­ny push­es vol­un­tary buy­outs with a fo­cus on R&D sup­port ser­vices.

Suf­fer­ing No­var­tis part­ner Cona­tus is pack­ing it in on NASH af­ter a se­ries of un­for­tu­nate tri­al events

The NASH par­ty is over at No­var­tis-backed Cona­tus. And this time they’re turn­ing off the lights.

More than 2 years af­ter No­var­tis sur­prised the biotech in­vest­ment com­mu­ni­ty with its $50 mil­lion up­front and promise of R&D sup­port to part­ner with the lit­tle biotech on NASH — ig­nit­ing a light­ning strike for the share price — Cona­tus $CNAT is back with the lat­est bit­ter tale to tell about em­ri­c­as­an, which once in­spired con­fi­dence at the phar­ma gi­ant.

Dean Hum. Nasdaq via YouTube

Gen­fit goes to Chi­na with a deal worth up to $228M for NASH drug

Fresh off the high of its Nas­daq IPO de­but, and the low of com­par­isons to Cymabay — whose NASH drug re­cent­ly stum­bled — Gen­fit on Mon­day un­veiled an up to $228 mil­lion deal with transpa­cif­ic biotech Terns Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals to de­vel­op its flag­ship ex­per­i­men­tal liv­er drug — elafi­bra­nor — in Greater Chi­na.

The deal comes weeks af­ter Gen­fit $GN­FT is­sued a fiery de­fense of its dual PPAR ag­o­nist elafi­bra­nor, when com­peti­tor Cymabay’s PPARδ ag­o­nist, se­ladel­par, fiz­zled in a snap­shot of da­ta from an on­go­ing mid-stage tri­al. The main goal at the end of 12 weeks was for se­ladel­par to in­duce a sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in liv­er fat con­tent, but da­ta showed that pa­tients on the place­bo ac­tu­al­ly per­formed bet­ter.

Alex­ion wins pri­or­i­ty re­view for Ul­tomiris' aHUS in­di­ca­tion; FDA ex­pands ap­proval of Ver­tex's Symdeko

→ Alex­ion $ALXN has scored a speedy re­view for Ul­tomiris for pa­tients with atyp­i­cal he­molyt­ic ure­mic syn­drome (aHUS) af­ter post­ing pos­i­tive da­ta from a piv­otal study in Jan­u­ary. The drug is the rare dis­ease com­pa­ny’s shot at pro­tect­ing its block­buster blood dis­or­der fran­chise that is cur­rent­ly cen­tered around its flag­ship drug, Soliris, which is a com­ple­ment in­hibitor typ­i­cal­ly ad­min­is­tered every two weeks. Ul­tomiris has a sim­i­lar mech­a­nism of ac­tion but re­quires less-fre­quent dos­ing — every eight weeks. The de­ci­sion date has been set to Oc­to­ber 19. Late last year, Ul­tomiris se­cured ap­proval for noc­tur­nal he­mo­glo­bin­uria (PNH) pa­tients.

Bet­ter than Am­bi­en? Min­er­va soars on PhI­Ib up­date on sel­torex­ant for in­som­nia

A month af­ter roil­ing in­vestors with what skep­tics dis­missed as cher­ry pick­ing of its de­pres­sion da­ta, Min­er­va is back with a clean slate of da­ta from its Phase IIb in­som­nia tri­al.

In a de­tailed up­date, the Waltham, MA-based biotech said sel­torex­ant (MIN-202) hit both the pri­ma­ry and sev­er­al sec­ondary end­points, ef­fec­tive­ly im­prov­ing sleep in­duc­tion and pro­long­ing sleep du­ra­tion. In­ves­ti­ga­tors made a point to note that the ef­fects were con­sis­tent across the adult and el­der­ly pop­u­la­tions, with the lat­ter more prone to the sleep dis­or­der.

Gene ther­a­py biotech sees its stock rock­et high­er on promis­ing re­sults for rare cas­es of but­ter­fly dis­ease

Shares of Krys­tal Biotech took off this morn­ing $KRYS af­ter the lit­tle biotech re­port­ed promis­ing re­sults from its gene ther­a­py to treat a rare skin dis­ease called epi­der­mol­y­sis bul­losa.

Fo­cus­ing on an up­date with 4 new pa­tients, re­searchers spot­light­ed the suc­cess of KB103 in clos­ing some stub­born wounds. Krys­tal says that of 4 re­cur­ring and 2 chron­ic skin wounds treat­ed with the gene ther­a­py, the KB103 group saw the clo­sure of 5. The 6th — a chron­ic wound, de­fined as a wound that had re­mained open for more than 12 weeks — was par­tial­ly closed. That brings the to­tal so far to 8 treat­ed wounds, with 7 clo­sures.