Am­gen ponies up $240M for Michi­gan dis­cov­ery out­fit's den­drit­ic cell tar­get­ing mol­e­cules for au­toim­mune dis­or­ders

In the mas­sive im­munol­o­gy mar­ket, some of phar­ma’s biggest play­ers are look­ing for nov­el path­ways to treat dis­ease ar­eas al­ready packed with big-name drugs. Now, with an im­munol­o­gy block­buster of its own in Ote­zla, Am­gen is pony­ing up to part­ner with a Michi­gan dis­cov­ery out­fit look­ing to tar­get den­drit­ic cells to churn up im­mune tol­er­ance.

Am­gen will pay $240 mil­lion in up­front cash and mile­stone pay­ments for mol­e­cules tar­get­ing au­toim­mune con­di­tions from Ann Ar­bor, MI-based Evoq Ther­a­peu­tics, a spin­off of re­search from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, the biotech said Wednes­day.

Greg Bar­rett

Evoq, named for the tar­get­ed den­drit­ic cells the com­pa­ny us­es to “evoke” im­mune tol­er­ance in reg­u­la­to­ry T cells, is the prod­uct of re­search from co-founders James Moon and An­na Schwen­de­man, who meld­ed minds while work­ing to­geth­er at the uni­ver­si­ty, pres­i­dent Greg Bar­rett told End­points News. The pair cre­at­ed a high-den­si­ty lipopro­tein plat­form, dubbed Nan­oDisc, that they spec­u­lat­ed could be used to di­rect­ly de­liv­er pep­tides more ef­fec­tive­ly in­to the lymph nodes.

With their re­search used as the ba­sis for a new com­pa­ny, Moon and Schwen­de­man, now chief sci­en­tif­ic of­fi­cer and VP of pre­clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, re­spec­tive­ly, ini­tial­ly tar­get­ed on­col­o­gy but quick­ly piv­ot­ed to in­flam­ma­to­ry au­toim­mune dis­eases af­ter re­con­noi­ter­ing a jam-packed can­cer space and turn­ing out pos­i­tive pre­clin­i­cal da­ta, Bar­rett said.

“As is of­ten the case, evok­ing an im­mune re­sponse and evok­ing im­mune tol­er­ance is the oth­er side of the same coin,” Bar­rett said. “So when we looked at the im­muno-tol­er­ance space, we were re­al­ly sur­prised by the num­bers that were com­ing up.”

An­na Schwen­de­man

Those high marks in the ear­ly stages us­ing what Bar­rett called “gold stan­dard an­i­mal mod­els” caught the eyes of in­vestors and phar­ma play­ers, in­clud­ing Am­gen, which de­cid­ed to jump on board with its es­tab­lished pres­ence in the im­munol­o­gy space — most no­tably with new­ly ac­quired Ote­zla.

Bar­rett couldn’t di­vulge what cut of the $240 mil­lion pact will be in up­front cash and what will be in biobucks, but he did say a “sig­nif­i­cant” chunk of change will be used to ad­vance Am­gen’s tar­get­ed mol­e­cules as well as Evoq’s in-house port­fo­lio, with two mol­e­cules tar­get­ing MOG an­ti­body dis­ease, a new­ly coined con­di­tion that can cause neu­ro-spinal swelling and is usu­al­ly mis­di­ag­nosed as mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, and type 1 di­a­betes.

James Moon

That range of po­ten­tial ther­a­peu­tic use shows Evoq’s plat­form isn’t just a “one-trick pony,” Bar­rett said. How­ev­er, the ex­tent of Am­gen’s in­ter­est couldn’t be dis­closed; Bar­rett said the phar­ma gi­ant was look­ing at “se­lect­ed dis­ease spaces” for Evoq’s po­ten­tial mol­e­cules.

As part of the pact, Evoq and Am­gen will co-de­vel­op any pre­clin­i­cal can­di­dates iden­ti­fied with Am­gen, which will then be han­dling clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment and com­mer­cial­iza­tion on the back end. Evoq would be due cer­tain roy­al­ties in case its can­di­dates go to mar­ket, Bar­rett said.

5AM Ven­tures: Fu­el­ing the Next Gen­er­a­tion of In­no­va­tors

By RBC Capital Markets
With Andy Schwab, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at 5AM Ventures

Key Points

Prescription Digital Therapeutics, cell therapy technologies, and in silico medicines will be a vital part of future treatment modalities.
Unlocking the potential of the microbiome could be the missing link to better disease diagnosis.
Growing links between academia, industry, and venture capital are spinning out more innovative biotech companies.
Biotech is now seen by investors as a growth space as well as a safe haven, fuelling the recent IPO boom.

Janet Woodcock (AP Images)

End­points poll: Janet Wood­cock takes the (in­ter­im) helm at the FDA. And a large ma­jor­i­ty of our read­ers want her to stay there

It’s official: Janet Woodcock is now the acting chief of the FDA.

And — according to an Endpoints poll — most industry readers would like her to stay there, although a significant minority is strongly opposed.

To recap: Joe Biden is reportedly choosing between Woodcock and former deputy FDA commissioner Joshua Sharfstein as his nominee for the permanent position. Given their respective track records, the decision is set to determine the agency’s lodestar for years to come.

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What’s next for End­points — and how to sup­port our in­de­pen­dent bio­phar­ma news mis­sion

The firehose of biopharma news is gushing these days.

That’s why broader and deeper is the theme for 2021 at Endpoints. You can expect new coverage outside our core R&D focus, with deeper reporting in some key areas. When John Carroll and I launched Endpoints nearly five years ago, we were wading in waist-high waters. Now we’re a team of 25 full-time staffers (and growing) with plans to cover the flood of biopharma news, Endpoints-style.

Eli Lil­ly's an­ti­body cuts risk of Covid-19 by up to 80% among the most vul­ner­a­ble — but will it have a place next to vac­cines?

Eli Lilly says bamlanivimab lowered the risk of contracting symptomatic Covid-19 in a first-of-its-kind trial involving nursing home residents and staff, paving the way for a new option to protect against the virus.

But how big of an impact it might have, and what role it will play, at a time vaccines are being rolled out to the exact population it is targeting still remains unclear.

Among 965 participants in the study — all of whom tested negative for the coronavirus at baseline — the number of symptomatic cases reported in the bamlanivimab arm was 57% lower than that in the placebo arm (odds ratio 0.43, p=0.00021). In addition to that primary endpoint, all secondary endpoints reached statistical significance.

Michelle McMurry-Heath, BIO CEO (BIO via YouTube)

BIO looks to re­struc­ture, lay­ing off staff amid chal­lenge to the trade org's nor­mal face-to-face style

The biopharma industry, on the whole, had a red-letter year in 2020 amid Covid-19, with fundraising at an all-time high and major players speeding vaccines ahead to approval. But for BIO, the industry’s leading trade organization, the pandemic has prompted a reconsideration of the game plan.

BIO will pivot to digital as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage, making “some staff reductions” as it looks to bring its roughly 37,000 in-person meetings each year to the web, the organization said Thursday.

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Covid-19 roundup: Italy won­ders aloud if it can sue Pfiz­er for vac­cine short­falls; US recom­mits to WHO un­der Biden ad­min­is­tra­tion

As reports crop up that deliveries of Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine are being unexpectedly cut, Italy wonders if it can take the vaccine developers to court, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

After its shipment for this week was cut by 29%, the Italian government consulted its attorney general about taking legal action, the WSJ reported. Pfizer and BioNTech had warned the EU and Canada last week that their allocations would be reduced as Pfizer upgrades its Belgium factory. What Italy says it doesn’t appreciate, though, is the short notice.

Hal Barron, GSK R&D chief (GSK via YouTube)

Glax­o­SmithK­line's $4B bis­pe­cif­ic can­cer drug al­liance with Mer­ck KGaA hit by big set­back with a PhI­II fail­ure on NSCLC

Close to 2 years ago, GSK’s R&D team eagerly agreed to pay up to $4 billion-plus to ally itself with Merck KGaA on a mid-stage bispecific called bintrafusp alfa, which intrigued them with the combination of a TGF-β trap with the anti-PD-L1 mechanism in one fusion protein.

But today the German pharma company says that their lead study on lung cancer was a bust, as independent monitors said there was no reason to believe that the experimental drug — targeting PD-L1/TGF-Beta — could beat Keytruda.

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Janet Woodcock and Joshua Sharfstein (AP, Images)

Poll: Should Joshua Sharf­stein or Janet Wood­cock lead the FDA from here?

It’s time for a new FDA commissioner to come on board, a rite of passage for Joe Biden’s administration that should help seal the new president’s rep on seeking out the experts to lead the government over the next 4 years.

As of now, the competition for the top job appears to have narrowed down to 2 people: The longtime CDER chief Janet Woodcock and Joshua Sharfstein, the former principal deputy at the FDA under Peggy Hamburg. Both were appointed by Barack Obama.

Mike Grey, Plexium chairman (Horizon Therapeutics)

Plex­i­um adds in­dus­try vet Mike Grey to the brain trust with new in­vestor cash fund­ing its pro­tein degra­da­tion play

About 15 months since closing a $28 million Series A, a San Diego protein-degradation upstart returned to the venture well Thursday with an extension of that round and some new hires, including one of the city’s best-connected biotech execs.

Plexium has bagged an additional $35 million in financing, the biotech said, money that will push undisclosed oncology and immuno-oncology programs into the clinic. In addition, longtime industry vet Mike Grey is jumping on as chairman of the board, and two others from Thursday’s leads — Adam Goulburn from Lux Capital and Rob Hopfner from Pivotal BioVentures — joined the board too.