Al­lied with Penn, Tmu­ni­ty’s cell ther­a­py pi­o­neers bag $100M mega-round to back a break­through quest on CAR-T, CRISPR

No­var­tis vet Us­man “Oz” Azam and Penn re­searcher Carl June are two of the ul­ti­mate in­sid­ers in the CAR-T rev­o­lu­tion. They each played promi­nent roles in ad­vanc­ing No­var­tis’ break­through ther­a­py Kym­ri­ah to an his­toric first-ever ap­proval. They are now al­lied in an at­tempt to do it all much, much bet­ter with next-gen tech which just at­tract­ed a $100 mil­lion mega-round from an un­con­ven­tion­al group of glob­al glo­biotech in­vestors.

And af­ter stay­ing qui­et for more than a year, they’re al­ready in the clin­ic with two open pro­grams, play­ing a key role co-fund­ing a cut­ting-edge cell ther­a­py study at Penn us­ing CRISPR to mod­i­fy im­mune cells.

Azam, you may re­call, head­ed up No­var­tis’ cell and gene ther­a­py unit be­fore its spec­tac­u­lar breakup a year and a half ago, as the phar­ma gi­ant man­aged the un­like­ly task of slash­ing its costs while main­tain­ing the lead on get­ting the first CAR-T ther­a­py ap­proved. As the re­struc­tur­ing went in place in the sum­mer of 2016, Azam left and soon af­ter jumped to the Penn spin­out, re­main­ing re­lent­less­ly un­der the radar — un­til to­day.

So what, giv­en the bil­lions of dol­lars be­ing in­vest­ed in I/O, makes Tmu­ni­ty dif­fer­ent from the rest of the grow­ing crowd?

Azam quick­ly ze­roes in on June and the net­work of sci­en­tists at Penn en­list­ed in the ex­clu­sive col­lab­o­ra­tion deal they have to work to­geth­er.

It’s the “biotech-like struc­ture that Carl found­ed, that can trans­late these ther­a­pies through the reg­u­la­to­ry hur­dles and in­to clin­i­cal tri­al set­tings” that make one key dif­fer­ence, he says.

Azam of­fered that Tmu­ni­ty along with the Park­er In­sti­tute for Can­cer Im­munother­a­py are fund­ing a new­ly opened — and close­ly watched — tri­al at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia us­ing CRISPR gene edit­ing tech to mod­i­fy can­cer cells. And he adds there’s al­so a clin­i­cal tri­al un­der­way in prostate can­cer they’re back­ing as well, with more pro­grams in the pipeline out of Penn.

I asked Azam if there was one key thing he had learned about the field at No­var­tis. His re­ply:

“The big learn­ing I had was link­ing and bring­ing to­geth­er trans­la­tion­al med­i­cine and man­u­fac­tur­ing as soon as pos­si­ble.”

Jiang Zhang

The jour­ney from proof-of-con­cept to com­mer­cial­iza­tion was just 7 years, he adds. “That’s pret­ty breath­tak­ing.” And do­ing it re­quired a quick leap from ear­ly clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment in trans­la­tion­al med­i­cine and “em­brac­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing and tech­ni­cal com­pe­ten­cies ear­ly on. That’s been the biggest chal­lenge for the field. Not just aca­d­e­m­ic set­ting suc­cess, but mak­ing prod­ucts.”

The in­vestors in­clude:

— Gilead, the new own­er of CAR-T play­er Kite, which has vowed to stay in the fore­front of new tech in the space.

— The Park­er In­sti­tute, the non­prof­it re­search group backed by Face­Book bil­lion­aire Sean Park­er, out to spark new brush­fires of in­no­va­tion.

— Ping An Ven­tures, the ven­ture arm of the Glob­al For­tune 500 Chi­nese in­sur­ance out­fit, which al­so backed Shang­hai-based In­novent Bi­o­log­ics.

— And Be The Match Bio­Ther­a­pies, with the seed round in­vestors at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and Lil­ly Asia Ven­tures.

“We were al­so at­tract­ed to the glob­al po­ten­tial of the pipeline, es­pe­cial­ly the T cell ther­a­pies in on­col­o­gy in Chi­na, as well as the scope be­yond on­col­o­gy in­to au­toim­mune and in­fec­tious dis­eases, as we be­gin to ex­pand our in­vest­ment port­fo­lio,” said Jiang Zhang, man­ag­ing part­ner of Ping An Ven­tures.

Michael Polan­sky

I asked the Park­er In­sti­tute why they de­cid­ed to help bankroll the com­pa­ny, and got a re­sponse from Michael Polan­sky, pres­i­dent of the Park­er Group and mem­ber of the Park­er In­sti­tute for Can­cer Im­munother­a­py Board of Di­rec­tors:

As you know Carl June at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia is such a gi­ant in the field of cell ther­a­py and CAR-T, such a pi­o­neer, which is why we want­ed to bring him on as a di­rec­tor at the Park­er In­sti­tute. His lead­er­ship and in­sight in­to the field of cell ther­a­py are in­valu­able.

With him as sci­en­tif­ic founder of Tmu­ni­ty, that gave us a lot of con­fi­dence that the tech­nol­o­gy and the sci­ence will be top tier. And from what we’ve seen there’s no ques­tion that they have a sol­id plan for de­vel­op­ing the next wave of suc­cess­ful cell and gene ther­a­pies, re­al­ly trans­lat­ing those the dis­cov­er­ies so they can be de­vel­oped in­to ther­a­pies at an ac­cel­er­at­ed pace to help more can­cer pa­tients faster.

So far, the biotech has made all of two an­nounce­ments, start­ing with Azam’s ar­rival and end­ing with Mike Chris­tiano’s move to the BD side of the busi­ness af­ter play­ing a sim­i­lar role in No­var­tis.

Now that the A round is in, Azam says he can start re­cruit­ing, build­ing up the small team as they con­tin­ue to work with top in­ves­ti­ga­tors at Penn on the re­search, tech­nol­o­gy and clin­i­cal tri­als.

“It’s a great space to be in now,” he says, “and will be for decades to come.”

ZS Per­spec­tive: 3 Pre­dic­tions on the Fu­ture of Cell & Gene Ther­a­pies

The field of cell and gene therapies (C&GTs) has seen a renaissance, with first generation commercial therapies such as Kymriah, Yescarta, and Luxturna laying the groundwork for an incoming wave of potentially transformative C&GTs that aim to address diverse disease areas. With this renaissance comes several potential opportunities, of which we discuss three predictions below.

Allogenic Natural Killer (NK) Cells have the potential to displace current Cell Therapies in oncology if proven durable.

Despite being early in development, Allogenic NKs are proving to be an attractive new treatment paradigm in oncology. The question of durability of response with allogenic therapies is still an unknown. Fate Therapeutics’ recent phase 1 data for FT516 showed relatively quicker relapses vs already approved autologous CAR-Ts. However, other manufacturers, like Allogene for their allogenic CAR-T therapy ALLO-501A, are exploring novel lymphodepletion approaches to improve persistence of allogenic cells. Nevertheless, allogenic NKs demonstrate a strong value proposition relative to their T cell counterparts due to comparable response rates (so far) combined with the added advantage of a significantly safer AE profile. Specifically, little to no risk of graft versus host disease (GvHD), cytotoxic release syndrome (CRS), and neurotoxicity (NT) have been seen so far with allogenic NK cells (Fig. 1). In addition, being able to harness an allogenic cell source gives way to operational advantages as “off-the-shelf” products provide improved turnaround time (TAT), scalability, and potentially reduced cost. NKs are currently in development for a variety of overlapping hematological indications with chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-Ts) today, and the question remains to what extent they will disrupt the current cell therapy landscape. Click for more details.

Graphic: Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

What kind of biotech start­up wins a $3B syn­di­cate, woos a gallery of mar­quee sci­en­tists and re­cruits GSK's Hal Bar­ron as CEO in a stun­ner? Let Rick Klaus­ner ex­plain

It started with a question about a lifetime’s dream on a walk with tech investor Yuri Milner.

At the beginning of the great pandemic, former NCI chief and inveterate biotech entrepreneur Rick Klausner and the Facebook billionaire would traipse Los Altos Hills in Silicon Valley Saturday mornings and talk about ideas.

Milner’s question on one of those mornings on foot: “What do you want to do?”

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Hal Barron, Endpoints UKBIO20 (Jeff Rumans)

'Al­tos was re­al­ly a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­ni­ty': Hal Bar­ron re­flects on his big move

By all accounts, Hal Barron had one of the best jobs in Big Pharma R&D. He made more than $11 million in 2020, once again reaping more than his boss, Emma Walmsley, who always championed him at every opportunity. And he oversaw a global R&D effort that struck a variety of big-dollar deals for oncology, neurodegeneration and more.

Sure, the critics never let up about what they saw as a rather uninspiring late-stage pipeline, where the rubber hits the road in the Big Pharma world’s hunt for the next big near-term blockbuster, but the in-house reviews were stellar. And Barron was firmly focused on bringing up the success rate in clinical trials, holding out for the big rewards of moving the dial from an average 10% success rate to 20%.

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Executive Director of the EMA Emer Cooke (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment signs off on strength­en­ing drug reg­u­la­tor's abil­i­ty to tack­le short­ages

The European Parliament on Thursday endorsed a plan to increase the powers of the European Medicines Agency, which will be better equipped to monitor and mitigate shortages of drugs and medical devices.

By a vote of 655 to 31, parliament signed off on a provisional agreement reached with the European Council from last October, in which the EMA will create two shortage steering groups (one for drugs, the other for devices), a new European Shortages Monitoring Platform to facilitate data collection and increase transparency, and on funding for the work of the steering groups, task force, working parties and expert panels that are to be established.

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FDA+ roundup: FDA's neu­ro­science deputy de­parts amid on­go­ing Aduhelm in­ves­ti­ga­tions; Califf on the ropes?

Amid increased scrutiny into the close ties between FDA and Biogen prior to the controversial accelerated approval of Aduhelm, the deputy director of the FDA’s office of neuroscience has called it quits after more than two decades at the agency.

Eric Bastings will now take over as VP of development strategy at Ionis Pharmaceuticals, the company said Wednesday, where he will provide senior clinical and regulatory leadership in support of Ionis’ pipeline.

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Sec­ondary patents prove to be key in biosim­i­lar block­ing strate­gies, re­searchers find

While the US biosimilars industry has generally been a disappointment since its inception, with FDA approving 33 biosimilars since 2015, just a fraction of those have immediately followed their approvals with launches. And more than a handful of biosimilars for two of the biggest blockbusters of all time — AbbVie’s Humira and Amgen’s Enbrel — remain approved by FDA but still have not launched because of legal settlements.

Hal Barron (GSK via YouTube)

GSK R&D chief Hal Bar­ron jumps ship to run a $3B biotech start­up, Tony Wood tapped to re­place him

In a stunning switch, GlaxoSmithKline put out word early Wednesday that R&D chief Hal Barron is exiting the company after 4 years — a relatively brief run for the man chosen by CEO Emma Walmsley in late 2017 to turn around the slow-footed pharma giant.

Barron is being replaced by Tony Wood, a close associate of Barron’s who’s taking one of the top jobs in Big Pharma R&D. He’ll be closer to home, though, for GSK. Barron has been running a UK and Philadelphia-based research organization from his perch in San Francisco.

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Troy Wilson, Kura CEO

FDA lifts par­tial hold on Ku­ra's Phase Ib AML pro­gram as biotech re­dou­bles mit­i­ga­tion ef­forts

Kura Oncology is clear to resume studies for its early-stage leukemia program after the FDA lifted a clinical hold Thursday afternoon.

Regulators had placed the hold on a Phase Ib study of KO-539, an experimental oral treatment for some genetic subsets of acute myeloid leukemia last November after a patient died while taking the drug. Kura expects to begin enrolling patients again imminently, CEO Troy Wilson told Endpoints News.

A Sen­ate bill wants to even an 'un­lev­el play­ing field' for do­mes­tic, for­eign in­spec­tion drop-ins amid back­log

Amid geopolitical tensions between the US and China, two Republican senators are calling for a bill that would aim to strike a balance on domestic and foreign inspection requirements from the FDA.

Sens. Mike Braun (R-IN) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) have penned a bill called the Creating Efficiency in Foreign Inspections Act. It contains a bit of rhetoric, highlighting “communist China” not once, but twice in the release, but states that the goal is to even the playing field between foreign and American manufacturers.

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