An­ti­body strat­e­gy to aug­ment ver­sa­tile im­mune cells sparks in­vest­ment in French biotech

A small frac­tion of ver­sa­tile im­mune cells — prized for their abil­i­ty to hack the tu­mor mi­croen­vi­ron­ment — are shap­ing up to be the next wave of im­munother­a­pies. These gam­ma delta T cells, in con­trast to their pop­u­lar al­pha be­ta coun­ter­parts har­nessed by CAR-T ther­a­pies, do not re­ly on spe­cif­ic anti­gens but kill when pre­sent­ed with gener­ic ex­pres­sions of in­fec­tion or dis­ease.

Paul Frohna

Most play­ers in the field are work­ing on ways to im­prove ex­ist­ing cell ther­a­pies, by shoring up ef­fi­ca­cy, lim­it­ing tox­i­c­i­ty, mak­ing the tech­nol­o­gy more ac­ces­si­ble with “off-the-shelf” ap­proach­es ver­sus the ex­ist­ing com­plex au­tol­o­gous mod­el, and ex­pand­ing it to oth­er can­cer types be­yond hema­to­log­i­cal ma­lig­nan­cies by en­list­ing lym­pho­cytes such as gam­ma delta T cells. These ef­forts are not try­ing to rein­vent the CAR-T wheel, but in­deed smoothen it so it moves faster, bet­ter and stronger for a broad­er group of can­cer pa­tients.

The in­ter­est in gam­ma delta T cells is dri­ven by the un­der­stand­ing that their pres­ence in the tu­mor mi­croen­vi­ron­ment is typ­i­cal­ly linked to a bet­ter prog­no­sis. But in­stead of ex­tract­ing gam­ma delta T cells to en­hance their ac­tiv­i­ty, French biotech Im­Check Ther­a­peu­tics has de­vised an ap­proach that re­lies on bu­ty­rophilin (BTN) mol­e­cules — which are named af­ter the epony­mous pro­tein in cow’s milk — to boost the ac­tion of cer­tain gam­ma delta T cells.

“The beau­ty of it is that we’re us­ing the pa­tient’s in­ter­nal gam­ma delta T cells, are not tak­ing them out, but are us­ing a mon­o­clon­al (an­ti­body) that can be ad­min­is­tered once every three weeks quite sim­ply over 30 min­utes in an in­fu­sion,” Paul Frohna, Im­Check’s chief med­ical of­fi­cer, not­ed in an in­ter­view with End­points News.

“What we’re do­ing is just es­sen­tial­ly har­ness­ing that po­ten­tial that they (gam­ma delta T cells) in­nate­ly pos­sess and am­pli­fy­ing it to a point where they re­al­ly be­come ac­tive in search­ing out and de­stroy­ing the can­cer cells.”

Pierre d’Epe­noux

On Wednes­day, the com­pa­ny un­veiled it had se­cured $53 mil­lion in Se­ries B fi­nanc­ing, bring­ing the to­tal cap­i­tal raised in 2.5 years to near­ly $80 mil­lion. The mon­ey will be used to shep­herd its lead im­muno-on­col­o­gy pro­gram, ICT01, in­to the clin­ic next year.

The ther­a­py is en­gi­neered to work in two ways — to dri­ve the gam­ma delta T cells cir­cu­lat­ing in the blood­stream to look for in­fect­ed cells or tu­mors, while ac­ti­vat­ing the gam­ma delta T cells that are al­ready with­in the tu­mor mi­croen­vi­ron­ment, Frohna said.

The raft of drug de­vel­op­ers — in­clud­ing Gam­maDelta Ther­a­peu­tics and its new spin­off Adap­tate, Re­gen­eron-backed Adicet Bio, Nether­lands-based Gade­ta, and Scot­land’s TC Bio­Pharm — keen on gam­ma delta T cells is grow­ing. But Im­Check is con­vinced its ap­proach, though ear­ly in the test­ing phase, has tan­gi­ble ad­van­tages over the crop.

There are oth­er sci­en­tists cog­nizant of the im­pact of BTNs on gam­ma delta T cells, but Im­Check is the on­ly com­pa­ny em­ploy­ing the mon­o­clon­al an­ti­body ap­proach, chief Pierre d’Epe­noux sug­gest­ed.

De­spite the pro­found clin­i­cal re­spons­es in­duced by the in­fu­sion of ge­net­i­cal­ly-mod­i­fied al­pha be­ta T cells pack­aged as CAR-T ther­a­pies, the ex­ist­ing ap­proach is rid­dled with lim­i­ta­tions. They on­ly work in blood can­cers, don’t work for a num­ber of pa­tients, tox­i­c­i­ty is an is­sue, are time-con­sum­ing to pro­duce, and the man­u­fac­tur­ing ap­pa­ra­tus re­quired is im­mense. Sales of the pi­o­neer­ing CAR-Ts — No­var­tis’ Kym­ri­ah and Gilead’s Yescar­ta — which can cost up to $1 mil­lion per pa­tient, have un­der­whelmed as a re­sult.

Mean­while, mon­o­clon­al an­ti­bod­ies are fa­mil­iar tech­nol­o­gy and are rel­a­tive­ly eas­i­er to en­gi­neer, pro­duce and ma­neu­ver through the reg­u­la­to­ry sys­tem, d’Epe­noux said.

The Im­Check in­jec­tion was co-led by the ven­ture cap­i­tal arm of Pfiz­er, and Bpifrance — with par­tic­i­pa­tion from new in­vestors in­clud­ing Welling­ton Part­ners, Agent Cap­i­tal and Alexan­dria Ven­ture In­vest­ments, as well as ex­ist­ing back­ers such as Life Sci­ences Part­ners, Gimv, Id­in­vest Part­ners, Kur­ma Part­ners, and Boehringer In­gel­heim Ven­ture Fund.

Donald and Melania Trump watch the smoke of fireworks from the South Lawn of the White House on July 4, 2020 (via Getty)

Which drug de­vel­op­ers of­fer Trump a quick, game-chang­ing ‘so­lu­tion’ as the pan­dem­ic roars back? Eli Lil­ly and Ab­Cellera look to break out of the pack

We are unleashing our nation’s scientific brilliance and will likely have a therapeutic and/or vaccine solution long before the end of the year.

— Donald Trump, July 4

Next week administration officials plan to promote a new study they say shows promising results on therapeutics, the officials said. They wouldn’t describe the study in any further detail because, they said, its disclosure would be “market-moving.”

— NBC News, July 3

Something’s cooking. And it’s not just July 4 leftovers involving stale buns and uneaten hot dogs.

Over the long weekend observers picked up signs that the focus in the Trump administration may swiftly shift from the bright spotlight on vaccines being promised this fall, around the time of the election, to include drugs that could possibly keep patients out of the hospital and take the political sting out of the soaring Covid-19 numbers causing embarrassment in states that swiftly reopened — as Trump cheered along.

So far, Gilead has been the chief beneficiary of the drive on drugs, swiftly offering enough early data to get remdesivir an emergency authorization and into the hands of the US government. But their drug, while helpful in cutting stays, is known for a limited, modest effect. And that won’t tamp down on the hurricane of criticism that’s been tearing at the White House, and buffeting the president’s most stalwart core defenders as the economy suffers.

We’ve had positive early-stage vaccine data, most recently from Pfizer and BioNTech, playing catchup on an mRNA race led by Moderna — where every little sign of potential trouble is magnified into a lethal threat, just as every advance excites a frenzy of support. But that race still has months to play out, with more Phase I data due ahead of the mid-stage numbers looming ahead. A vaccine may not be available in large enough quantities until well into 2021, which is still wildly ambitious.

So what about a drug solution?

Trump’s initial support for a panacea focused on hydroxychloroquine. But that fizzled in the face of data underscoring its ineffectiveness — killing trials that aren’t likely to be restarted because of a recent population-based study offering some support. And there are a number of existing drugs being repurposed to see how they help hospitalized patients.

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George Yancopoulos (Regeneron)

UP­DAT­ED: Re­gen­eron co-founder George Yan­copou­los of­fers a com­bat­ive de­fense of the po­lice at a high school com­mence­ment. It didn’t go well

Typically, the commencement speech at Yorktown Central School District in Westchester — like most high schools — is an opportunity to encourage students to face the future with confidence and hope. Regeneron president and co-founder George Yancopoulos, though, went a different route.

In a fiery speech, the outspoken billionaire defended the police against the “prejudice and bias against law enforcement” that has erupted around the country in street protests from coast to coast. And for many who attended the commencement, Yancopoulos struck the wrong note at the wrong time, especially when he combatively challenged someone for interrupting his speech with a honk for “another act of cowardness.”

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Elias Zerhouni (Photo by Vincent Isore/IP3/Getty Images)

Elias Zer­houni dis­cuss­es ‘am­a­teur hour’ in DC, the de­struc­tion of in­fec­tious dis­ease R&D and how we need to prep for the next time

Elias Zerhouni favors blunt talk, and in a recent discussion with NPR, the ex-Sanofi R&D and ex-NIH chief had some tough points to make regarding the pandemic response.

Rather than interpret them, I thought it would be best to provide snippets straight from the interview.

On the Trump administration response:

It was basically amateur hour. There is no central concept of operations for preparedness, for pandemics, period. This administration doesn’t want to or has no concept of what it takes to protect the American people and the world because it is codependent. You can’t close your borders and say, “OK, we’re going to be safe.” You’re not going to be able to do that in this world. So it’s a lack of vision, basically just a lack of understanding, of what it takes to protect the American people.

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Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk gestures to the audience after being recognized by President Trump following the successful launch of a Falcon 9 rocket at the Kennedy Space Center. (via Getty Images)

Tes­la chief Elon Musk teams up with Covid-19 play­er Cure­Vac to build 'R­NA mi­cro­fac­to­ries'

Elon Musk has joined the global tech crusade now underway to revolutionize vaccine manufacturing — now aimed at delivering billions of doses of a new mRNA vaccine to fight Covid-19. And he’s cutting right to the front.

In a late-night tweet Wednesday, the Tesla chief announced:

Tesla, as a side project, is building RNA microfactories for CureVac & possibly others.

That’s not a lot to go on. But the tweet comes a year after Tesla’s German division in Grohmann and CureVac filed a patent on a “bioreactor for RNA in vitro transcription, a method for RNA in vitro transcription, a module for transcribing DNA into RNA and an automated apparatus for RNA manufacturing.” CureVac, in the meantime, has discussed a variety of plans to build microfactories that can speed up the whole process for a global supply chain.

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Sec­ond death trig­gers hold on Astel­las' $3B gene ther­a­py biotech's lead pro­gram, rais­ing fresh con­cerns about AAV

Seven months after Astellas shelled out $3 billion to acquire the gene therapy player Audentes, the biotech company’s lead program has been put on hold following the death of 2 patients taking a high dose of their treatment. And there was another serious adverse event recorded in the study as well, with a total of 3 “older” patients in the study affected.

The incidents are derailing plans to file for a near-term approval, which had been expected right about now.

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Douglas Love, Annexon CEO (Annexon)

IPO bound? A Bay Area biotech grabs a mega-round on the road to a piv­otal neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion pro­gram

South San Francisco-based Annexon has added $100 million to its cash reserves, along with a new roster of marquee investors backing their play on the classical complement pathway involved in neurodegeneration. And that may well fit the profile for an IPO — though right now everything seems to be working on that score.

Eighteen months after Bain and their syndicate partners put up $75 million to fuel clinical work, Annexon is back at the trough. And this time they’re adding Redmile Group for the lead role, with supporting investments from these new arrivals: BlackRock, Deerfield Management Company, Eventide Asset Management, Farallon Capital Management, Janus Henderson Investors and Logos Capital.

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Pfiz­er shares surge on pos­i­tive im­pact of their mR­NA Covid-19 vac­cine — part­nered with BioN­Tech — in an ear­ly-stage study

Pfizer and their partners at the mRNA specialist BioNTech have published the first glimpse of biomarker data from an early-stage study spotlighting the “robust immunogenicity” triggered by their Covid-19 vaccine, which is one of the leaders in the race to vanquish the global pandemic.

Researchers selected 45 healthy volunteers 18-55 years of age for the study. They were randomized to receive 2 doses, separated by 21 days, of 10 µg, 30 µg, or 100 µg of BNT162b1, “a lipid nanoparticle-formulated, nucleoside-modified, mRNA vaccine that encodes trimerized SARS-CoV-2 spike glycoprotein RBD.” Their responses were compared against the effect of a natural, presumably protective defense offered by a regular infection.

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Randy Schatzman, Bolt CEO (Bolt Biotherapeutics)

Bolt Bio­ther­a­peu­tics nabs $93.5M to push Provenge in­ven­tor's new idea deep­er in the clin­ic

A cancer-fighting concept from the inventor of the first cancer vaccine is nearing prime time, and its biotech developer has received a significant new infusion of cash to get it there.

Bolt Biotherapeutics announced a $93.5 million Series C round led by Sofinnova Investments and joined by more than 9 others, including Pfizer Ventures and RA Capital Management. That money will go toward pushing the San Francisco biotech’s platform of innate immune-boosting warheads through its first trial on metastatic solid tumors and into several more.

Josh Cohen, Justin Klee

Armed with pos­i­tive ALS da­ta, Amy­lyx scores $30M in fresh fund­ing to com­plete Alzheimer's PhII

Four years after announcing themselves to the biotech world with a new idea for drugging neurodegeneration, backing by the late Henri Termeer and $5 million from Morningside Venture, the young entrepreneurs at Amylyx are back for round 2.

Morningside continued to lead the $30 million Series B, with participation from Termeer’s widow, Belinda, and other unnamed investors. Having celebrated a topline Phase II win for its lead program in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Amylyx expects the cash to fund talks with regulators as well as a separate trial for the same drug in Alzheimer’s — for which they had just finished enrolling.