Af­ter sell­ing to Genen­tech, the old Je­cure team is back at an RNA-fo­cused start­up — and more en­thu­si­as­tic than ever

When Genen­tech swooped in to buy NASH-fo­cused Je­cure Ther­a­peu­tics back in 2018, a hand­ful of the start­up’s ex­ec­u­tives weren’t quite ready to dis­perse.

It had been just three years since Je­cure launched with a pre­clin­i­cal port­fo­lio of NL­RP3 in­hibitors — and the takeover came soon­er than any­one, in­clud­ing CEO Jeff Stafford, had ex­pect­ed. So he got talk­ing with James Veal and Gretchen Bain, two se­r­i­al en­tre­pre­neurs in charge of Je­cure’s R&D.

“We want­ed to do some­thing to­geth­er again,” Stafford told End­points News. “All of us share a high en­thu­si­asm for ear­ly stage drug dis­cov­ery, and had some ideas.”

Jeff Stafford

A year lat­er, they launched 858 Ther­a­peu­tics — named af­ter the San Diego area code — to fo­cus on the bur­geon­ing field of RNA mod­u­la­tion and the role it plays in can­cer. Right away, they snapped up Gotham Ther­a­peu­tics, a New York-based start­up that was cre­at­ing med­i­cines to drug key pro­teins that mod­u­late mR­NA, for an undis­closed amount.

And on Tues­day, they emerged from stealth mode with a $60 mil­lion Se­ries A round led by Ver­sant Ven­tures. NEA, Cor­morant As­set Man­age­ment and Lo­gos Cap­i­tal chipped in­to the round.

“We just found that space to be in­cred­i­bly dy­nam­ic where there have been, over the last few years, just a whole host of break­through dis­cov­er­ies,” Ver­sant part­ner Car­lo Riz­zu­to said.

Car­lo Riz­zu­to

While the in­dus­try was ini­tial­ly laser-fo­cused on mod­i­fy­ing DNA, ev­i­dence be­gan pil­ing up years ago that RNA mod­i­fi­ca­tions could help de­ter­mine to which de­gree genes are trans­lat­ed in­to pro­teins. The mod­i­fi­ca­tions play a big role in some can­cers — but un­til re­cent­ly, sci­en­tists have strug­gled to ad­dress those tar­gets due to a dearth of as­says and chal­lenges in cre­at­ing chem­i­cal mat­ter with drug-like prop­er­ties, Stafford said.

858’s plat­form re­volves around “spe­cial­ized know-how and spe­cial­ized as­says,” ac­cord­ing to Stafford. The Se­ries A mon­ey should be enough to get the team in­to the clin­ic by 2023 — but the CEO was care­ful not to dis­close the team’s tar­gets just yet. He says the com­pa­ny should be able to tack­le three to five pro­grams at a giv­en time.

Veal and Bain are on board as CSO and VP of bi­ol­o­gy, re­spec­tive­ly — the same roles they held at Je­cure. All three ex­ecs have ex­pe­ri­ence at Ver­sant-backed biotechs, in­clud­ing Quan­ti­cel and Ami­ra Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, which were bought by Cel­gene and Bris­tol My­ers Squibb, re­spec­tive­ly.

Stafford says he’s look­ing to ex­pand the 25-per­son team to 40 in the next 18 months, with head­quar­ters in San Diego and op­er­a­tions in New York.

“(It’s) I think very rare in this busi­ness to get to work with the same team over mul­ti­ple suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies,” Riz­zu­to said. “There are not many, you know, three-times suc­cess­ful teams that are do­ing their fourth com­pa­ny and so I think that’s a very clear point of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion.”

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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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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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.

Yao-Chang Xu, Abbisko Therapeutics founder and CEO

Qim­ing-backed Ab­bisko makes $200M+ Hong Kong de­but, as a SPAC and Agenus spin­out al­so price on Nas­daq

Three new entities priced their public debuts late Thursday and early Friday, including a SPAC, a traditional Nasdaq IPO and a Chinese biotech joining the Hong Kong Index.

Shanghai-based Abbisko Therapeutics raised the most money of the triumvirate, garnering $226 million in its Hong Kong debut and pricing at HK$12.46, or roughly $1.60 in US dollars. The blank check company followed up with a $150 million raise, while MiNK Therapeutics priced on Nasdaq at $12 per share and a $40 million raise.

Paul Grayson, Tentarix CEO (Versant)

Phar­ma vet­er­ans re­group with $50M and a plan to dis­cov­er new mul­ti-specifics

While a horde of drugmakers develops bispecific antibodies to more directly target tumor cells — there were about 100 programs in or nearing clinical trials back in May — a new company is emerging to go one step further.

On Thursday, Tentarix Biotherapeutics unveiled a $50 million Series A round to support its next-gen multi-specifics platform. While the field has largely focused on bispecifics, which engage two targets, Tentarix believes its multifunctional programs have the potential to be even more specific, since more conditions must be met for potent activity to occur.

FDA ad­comm votes unan­i­mous­ly in sup­port of a J&J Covid-19 boost­er two months af­ter one-dose shot

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) on Friday voted 19-0 in favor of authorizing a second shot of J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine to follow at least two months after the initial dose.

Regulators don’t have to follow VRBPAC’s recommendation, but they almost always do. Considering that the CDC’s advisory committee has already been set to review the expanded EUA, VRBPAC’s recommendation is likely to be adopted.