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.”

Biotech Half­time Re­port: Af­ter a bumpy year, is biotech ready to re­bound?

The biotech sector has come down firmly from the highs of February as negative sentiment takes hold. The sector had a major boost of optimism from the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, making investors keenly aware of the potential of biopharma R&D engines. But from early this year, clinical trial, regulatory and access setbacks have reminded investors of the sector’s inherent risks.

RBC Capital Markets recently surveyed investors to take the temperature of the market, a mix of specialists/generalists and long-only/ long-short investment strategies. Heading into the second half of the year, investors mostly see the sector as undervalued (49%), a large change from the first half of the year when only 20% rated it as undervalued. Around 41% of investors now believe that biotech will underperform the S&P500 in the second half of 2021. Despite that view, 54% plan to maintain their position in the market and 41% still plan to increase their holdings.

Covid-19 vac­cine boost­ers earn big thumbs up, but Mod­er­na draws ire over world sup­ply; What's next for Mer­ck’s Covid pill?; The C-suite view on biotech; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

You may remember that at the beginning of this year, Endpoints News set a goal to go broader and deeper. We are still working towards that, and are excited to share that Beth Snyder Bulik will be joining us on Monday to cover all things pharma marketing. You can sign up for her weekly Endpoints MarketingRx newsletter in your reader profile.

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No­var­tis de­vel­op­ment chief John Tsai: 'We go deep in the new plat­form­s'

During our recent European Biopharma Summit, I talked with Novartis development chief John Tsai about his experiences over the 3-plus years he’s been at the pharma giant. You can read the transcript below or listen to the exchange in the link above.

John Carroll: I followed your career for quite some time. You’ve had more than 20 years in big pharma R&D and you’ve obviously seen quite a lot. I really was curious about what it was like for you three and a half years ago when you took over as R&D chief at Novartis. Obviously a big move, a lot of changes. You went to work for the former R&D chief of Novartis, Vas Narasimhan, who had his own track record there. So what was the biggest adjustment when you went into this position?

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Rob Califf (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Biden like­ly to nom­i­nate Ver­i­ly's Rob Califf to lead the FDA again

Capping a controversially long period for the FDA to go without a permanent leader, President Joe Biden is likely to select Verily’s Rob Califf, a former FDA commissioner under President Obama, as the next FDA commissioner nominee.

A former Duke cardiologist and member of the prestigious National Academy of Medicine, Califf will be a welcome face for an agency grappling with high-profile retirements in CBER and CDER. He’ll also return to a role that he was comfortable in for a short stint at the end of Obama’s presidency. The Washington Post first reported the news.

Roche's Tecen­triq cross­es the fin­ish line first in ad­ju­vant lung can­cer, po­ten­tial­ly kick­ing off gold rush

While falling behind the biggest PD-(L)1 drugs in terms of sales, Roche has looked to carve out a space for its Tecentriq with a growing expertise in lung cancer. The drug will now take an early lead in the sought-after adjuvant setting — but competitors are on the way.

The FDA on Friday approved Tecentriq as an adjuvant therapy for patients with Stage II-IIIA non small cell lung cancer with PD-(L)1 scores greater than or equal to 1, making it the first drug of its kind approved in an early setting that covers around 40% of all NSCLC patients.

Amit Etkin, Alto Neuroscience CEO (Alto via Vimeo)

A star Stan­ford pro­fes­sor leaves his lab for a start­up out to re­make psy­chi­a­try

About five years ago, Amit Etkin had a breakthrough.

The Stanford neurologist, a soft-spoken demi-prodigy who became a professor while still a resident, had been obsessed for a decade with how to better define psychiatric disorders. Drugs for depression or bipolar disorder didn’t work for many patients with the conditions, and he suspected the reason was how traditional diagnoses didn’t actually get at the heart of what was going on in a patient’s brain.

Susan Galbraith, Executive VP, Oncology R&D, AstraZeneca

As­traZeneca on­col­o­gy R&D chief Su­san Gal­braith: 'Y­ou're go­ing to need or­thog­o­nal com­bi­na­tion­s'

 

Earlier in the week we broadcast our 4th annual European Biopharma Summit with a great lineup of top execs. One of the one-on-one conversations I set up was with Susan Galbraith, the oncology research chief at AstraZeneca. In a wide-ranging discussion, Galbraith reviewed the cancer drug pipeline and key trends influencing development work at the pharma giant. You can watch the video, above, or stick with the script below. — JC

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Tillman Gerngross, Adagio CEO

Q&A: Till­man Gern­gross ex­plains why his Covid mAb will have an edge over an al­ready crowd­ed field

If anyone knows about monoclonal antibodies, it’s serial entrepreneur, Adimab CEO, and Dartmouth professor of bioengineering Tillman Gerngross.

Even the name of Gerngross’ new antibody startup Adagio Therapeutics is meant to reflect his vision behind the development of his Covid-19 mAb: slowly, he said, explaining that “everyone else, whether it’s Regeneron, Lilly, or AstraZeneca, Vir, they all valued speed over everything.”

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Susan Galbraith speaking at Endpoints News' virtual EUBIO21 summit

Imfinzi/treme­li­mum­ab com­bo scores As­traZeneca an­oth­er OS win — this time in liv­er can­cer

Is the tide turning on AstraZeneca’s battered PD-L1/CTLA4 combo?

A single priming dose of the experimental tremelimumab, followed by Imfinzi every four weeks, beat Nexavar (sorafenib) in helping a group of liver cancer patients live longer in a Phase III study, the company reported, meeting the primary endpoint.

Specifically, the two drugs extended overall survival for patients with unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma who had not received prior systemic therapy and were not eligible for localized treatment.

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