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.”

Brian Kaspar. AveXis via Twitter

AveX­is sci­en­tif­ic founder fires back at No­var­tis CEO Vas Narasimhan, 'cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly de­nies any wrong­do­ing'

Brian Kaspar’s head was among the first to roll at Novartis after company execs became aware of the fact that manipulated data had been included in its application for Zolgensma, now the world’s most expensive therapy.

But in his first public response, the scientific founder at AveXis — acquired by Novartis for $8.7 billion — is firing back. And he says that not only was he not involved in any wrongdoing, he’s ready to defend his name as needed.

I reached out to Brian Kaspar after Novartis put out word that he and his brother Allen had been axed in mid-May, two months after the company became aware of the allegations related to manipulated data. His response came back through his attorneys.

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UP­DAT­ED: An em­bold­ened As­traZeneca splurges $95M on a pri­or­i­ty re­view vouch­er. Where do they need the FDA to hus­tle up?

AstraZeneca is in a hurry.

We learned this morning that the pharma giant — not known as a big spender, until recently — forked over $95 million to get its hands on a priority review voucher from Sobi, otherwise known as Swedish Orphan Biovitrum.

That marks another step down on price for a PRV, which allows the holder to slash 4 months off of any FDA review time.

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Martin Shkreli [via Getty]

Pris­on­er #87850-053 does not get to add drug de­vel­op­er to his list of cred­its

Just days after Retrophin shed its last ties to founder Martin Shkreli, the biotech is reporting that the lead drug he co-invented flopped in a pivotal trial. Fosmetpantotenate flunked both the primary and key secondary endpoints in a placebo-controlled trial for a rare disease called pantothenate kinase-associated neurodegeneration, or PKAN.

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We­bi­nar: Re­al World End­points — the brave new world com­ing in build­ing fran­chise ther­a­pies

Several biopharma companies have been working on expanding drug labels through the use of real world endpoints, combing through the data to find evidence of a drug’s efficacy for particular indications. But we’ve just begun. Real World Evidence is becoming an important part of every clinical development plan, in the soup-through-nuts approach used in building franchises.

I’ve recruited a panel of 3 top experts in the field — the first in a series of premium webinars — to look at the practical realities governing what can be done today, and where this is headed over the next few years, at the prodding of the FDA.

ZHEN SU — Merck Serono’s Senior Vice President and Global Head of Oncology
ELLIOTT LEVY — Amgen’s Senior Vice President of Global Development
CHRIS BOSHOFF — Pfizer Oncology’s Chief Development Officer

A premium subscription to Endpoints News is required to attend this webinar. Please upgrade to either an Insider or Enterprise plan for access. Already have Endpoints Premium? Please sign-in below. You can contact our Subscriptions team at help@endpointsnews.com with any issues.

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Am­gen, Al­ler­gan biosim­i­lar of Roche's block­buster Rit­ux­an clears an­oth­er US piv­otal study 

Novartis $NVS may have given up, but Amgen $AMGN and Allergan $AGN are plowing ahead with their knockoff of Roche’s blockbuster biologic Rituxan in the United States.

Their copycat, ABP 798, was found to have a clinically equivalent impact as Rituxan — meeting the main goal of the study involving CD20-positive B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients. This is the second trial supporting the profile of the biosimilar. In January, it came through with positive PK results in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Bob Smith, Pfizer

Pfiz­er is mak­ing a $500M state­ment to­day: Here’s how you be­come a lead play­er in the boom­ing gene ther­a­py sec­tor

Three years ago, Pfizer anted up $150 million in cash to buy Bamboo Therapeutics in Chapel Hill, NC as it cautiously stuck a toe in the small gene therapy pool of research and development.

Company execs followed up a year later with a $100 million expansion of the manufacturing operations they picked up in that deal for the UNC spinout, which came with $495 million in milestones.

And now they’re really going for it.

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Video: Putting the AI in R&D — with Badhri Srini­vasan, Tony Wood, Rosana Kapeller, Hugo Ceule­mans, Saurabh Sa­ha and Shoibal Dat­ta

During BIO this year, I had a chance to moderate a panel among some of the top tech experts in biopharma on their real-world use of artificial intelligence in R&D. There’s been a lot said about the potential of AI, but I wanted to explore more about what some of the larger players are actually doing with this technology today, and how they see it advancing in the future. It was a fascinating exchange, which you can see here. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. — John Carroll

UP­DAT­ED: As­traZeneca’s Imfinzi/treme com­bo strikes out — again — in lung can­cer. Is it time for last rites?

AstraZeneca bet big on the future of their PD-L1 Imfinzi combined with the experimental CTLA-4 drug tremelimumab. But once again it’s gone down to defeat in a major Phase III study — while adding damage to the theory involving targeting cancer with a high tumor mutational burden.

Early Wednesday the pharma giant announced that their NEPTUNE study had failed, with the combination unable to beat standard chemo at overall survival in high TMB cases of advanced non-small cell lung cancer. We won’t get hard data until later in the year, but the drumbeat of failures will call into question what — if any — future this combination can have left.

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BeiGene and Mus­tang nail down spe­cial FDA sta­tus for top drugs; Roche bags added cov­er­age for Hem­li­bra

→ BeiGene $BGNE is getting a boost in its drive to field a rival to Imbruvica. The FDA has offered an accelerated review to zanubrutinib, a BTK inhibitor that has posted positive results for mantle cell lymphoma. The PDUFA date lands on February 27, 2020. The drug scored breakthrough status at the beginning of the year.

→ BeiGene isn’t the only biopharma company to gain special regulatory status today. Mustang Bio $MBIO and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital announced that MB-107, a lentiviral gene therapy for the treatment of X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency, also known as bubble boy disease, has been granted Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy status.