ARCH-backed biotech emerges with $85M and a bold claim: A new hu­man hor­mone can re­verse a key ef­fect of ag­ing

The el­der­ly pa­tient’s mus­cles didn’t look right be­neath the mi­cro­scope.

He wasn’t just old. He had di­a­bet­ic my­opa­thy, a com­pli­ca­tion where mus­cles de­grade faster than nor­mal. The mi­to­chon­dria die, fibers weak­en, and the tis­sues be­come so bro­ken up they re­sem­ble cracked Dust Bowl earth. “Like cot­tage cheese,” of­fers Russ Cox, a Genen­tech and Jazz Phar­ma al­umn.

But now they looked — healthy. Mi­to­chon­dria were fir­ing. The fibers perked and stretched.

“These mus­cles were re­al­ly look­ing as if they were mus­cles of a per­son 20 years younger,” Sun­deep Dugar, the J&J and Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb vet on the oth­er end of the mi­cro­scope, told End­points News. 

The pa­tient and oth­ers had been in­ject­ed with a form of fla­vanol, the metabo­lites found in grape skins and wine and dark choco­late that lead nu­tri­tion­ists to some­times rec­om­mend those foods for heart health. It’s con­sid­ered an an­tiox­i­dant. But the re­sults that Dugar and his col­lab­o­ra­tor George Schrein­er saw, along with ear­li­er an­i­mal stud­ies, led them to a bold idea: Fla­vanoid was ac­tu­al­ly fol­low­ing bi­o­log­i­cal path­ways nor­mal­ly used by a yet undis­cov­ered hu­man hor­mone, the first of its kind dis­cov­ered in over 50 years.

“It’s a big deal,” Dugar said. “I think it’s a big deal.”

That was in 2012. Dugar, Schrein­er and Cox are now form­ing a com­pa­ny called Epir­i­um around that find­ing and the sub­se­quent work they did con­firm­ing the new hor­mone. It’s a re­jig of an old­er, poor­ly fund­ed group the trio had worked on called Cardero, but now they’ve man­aged to con­vince a fleet of topflight in­vestors: Lon­gi­tude, ARCH, Ver­tex and Adams Street have joined in an $85 mil­lion Se­ries A.

There’s al­so an in­vestor called Longevi­ty Fund, a group fo­cused on ex­tend­ing hu­man life, and ARCH head Bob Nelsen has made no se­cret of his de­sire to live for­ev­er. The two hint at an idea the new biotech isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly shy about: That while they will be­gin with tri­als in rare neu­ro­mus­cu­lar dis­or­ders, name­ly a form of mus­cu­lar dy­s­tro­phy called Beck­er’s, they have am­bi­tions that are much broad­er.

“They made the in­vest­ment not just be­cause they think we can do some­thing mean­ing­ful in Beck­er’s mus­cu­lar dy­s­tro­phy, but pri­mar­i­ly be­cause some of these larg­er dis­eases could ben­e­fit as well,” Cox, the CEO, told End­points. “There’s no ques­tion we will evolve.”

Epir­i­um isn’t yet re­veal­ing what their claimed new hor­mone is. They say the long de­lay has been in try­ing to se­cure the in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty and that a sci­en­tif­ic pa­per is com­ing ear­ly next year.

It has to do, though, with mi­to­chon­dria bio­gen­e­sis, or the cre­ation of new mi­to­chon­dria. These or­ganelles are of­ten called the ‘en­gine of the cells’ but they break down with age or with cer­tain dis­eases and bring the mus­cles down with them. Ex­er­cise is one of the on­ly ways to make more.

“You and I lose 10% of our mi­to­chon­dria every decade, so by the time you get to my age, you’re un­der­wa­ter as op­posed to when you’re 18,” said Cox, a for­mer track and cross coun­try ath­lete now ap­proach­ing 60.

Dugar and Schrein­er, who worked at Scios be­fore it was bought by J&J for $2.4 bil­lion in 2003, had been en­list­ed at UC San Diego to in­ves­ti­gate why fla­vanol had bi­o­log­i­cal ef­fects. To emerge from that re­search claim­ing to find a new hu­man hor­mone is bold, par­tic­u­lar­ly with­out pub­lish­ing the work. Re­searchers have long stud­ied fla­vanol for its car­dio­vas­cu­lar im­pact with­out ar­riv­ing at sim­i­lar con­clu­sions. The hor­mone would be the first mi­to­chon­dr­i­al steroid in 50 years, they said.

But the pair con­duct­ed 11 proof-of-con­cept tri­als on 110 pa­tients and say  they saw pro­found re­sults that ap­peared to work along each of the three well known mi­to­chon­dr­i­al path­ways. They didn’t fol­low up on the di­a­bet­ic my­opa­thy pa­tients long term, but they walked and stood bet­ter and that, com­bined with his mus­cle slides, was over­whelm­ing.

“This told us that while every­one clas­si­fies fla­vanol as an an­tiox­i­dant, that couldn’t be true,” said Dugar.

The two set up the pa­ra­me­ters for a hu­man equiv­a­lent that must op­er­ate along the same meta­bol­ic path as fla­vanoid, and soon found it. Cox said that in ear­ly meet­ings, in­vestors were mys­ti­fied by Epir­i­um’s pre­sen­ta­tion, but even­tu­al­ly came around.

“Of course, they all went to google it, and couldn’t find a pub­li­ca­tion on it and said ‘how can that damn be?'” he said.

Epir­i­um will start out with a clin­i­cal tri­al on Beck­er’s mus­cu­lar dy­s­tro­phy pa­tients, one of the groups they stud­ied in the ear­ly proof-of-con­cepts. Beck­er’s is akin to a less dev­as­tat­ing form of Duchenne. When pa­tients’ mus­cles fire, they re­lease tox­ins that kill mi­to­chon­dria and de­plete over­all mus­cle tis­sue. Cox said their hor­mone should be able to slow or even re­verse that mus­cle loss.

Beck­er’s may seem an odd start­ing point giv­en the gene ther­a­pies near­ing mar­ket for mus­cu­lar dy­s­tro­phy, but Cox said that their hor­mone might be used in com­bi­na­tion with the flashier ap­proach. For the com­pa­ny as a whole, though, rare dis­eases are pri­mar­i­ly places they al­ready have da­ta and think they might place a foothold for a much larg­er project, one that in­cludes neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion and oth­er age-re­lat­ed dis­or­ders.

Mi­to­chon­dria de­plete as we age. Epir­i­um says they’ve found a way to make them grow, a chem­i­cal ex­er­cise.

“I’m not say­ing I want to call it an­ti-ag­ing,” said Dugar. “But the ques­tion is, if you can re­al­ly have a sep­a­ra­tion be­tween your bi­o­log­i­cal age and your chrono­log­i­cal age, then, hey – 80 years olds who have healthy mi­to­chon­dria, will look like they were 60 years old or act like they were 60 years old. Maybe that’s what an­ti-ag­ing is.”

Mi­no­ryx and Sper­o­genix ink an ex­clu­sive li­cense agree­ment to de­vel­op and com­mer­cial­ize lerigli­ta­zone in Chi­na

September 23, 2020 – Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai (China) and Mataró, Barcelona (Spain)  

Minoryx will receive an upfront and milestone payments of up to $78 million, as well as double digit royalties on annual net sales 

Sperogenix will receive exclusive rights to develop and commercialize leriglitazone for the treatment of X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy (X-ALD), a rare life-threatening neurological condition

PhII Alzheimer's fail­ure deals new blow to Roche, AC Im­mune — but the tau hy­poth­e­sis is far from dead

The leading anti-tau antibody has failed its first Phase II testing, casting a shadow on a popular target (just trailing amyloid beta) for Alzheimer’s disease.

Roche and AC Immune are quick to acknowledge disappointment in the topline readout, which suggested that semorinemab did not reduce cognitive decline among patients with early Alzheimer’s disease, who are either just starting to have symptoms or have mild manifestations.

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FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn at the White House (AP Images)

Un­der fire, FDA to is­sue stricter guid­ance for Covid-19 vac­cine EUA this week — re­port

The FDA has been insisting for months that a Covid-19 vaccine had to be at least 50% effective – a measure of transparency meant to shore public trust in the agency and in a vaccine that had been brought forward at record speed and record political pressure. But now, with concerns of a Trump-driven authorization arriving before the election, the agency may be raising the bar.

The FDA is set to release new guidance that would raise safety and efficacy requirements for a vaccine EUA above earlier guidance and above the criteria used for convalescent plasma or hydroxychloroquine, The Washington Post reported. Experts say this significantly lowers the odds of an approval before the election on November 3, which Trump has promised despite vocal concerns from public health officials, and could help shore up public trust in the agency and any eventual vaccine.

Secretary of health and human services Alex Azar speaking in the Rose Garden at the White House (Photo: AFP)

Trump’s HHS claims ab­solute au­thor­i­ty over the FDA, clear­ing path to a vac­cine EUA

The top career staff at the FDA has vowed not to let politics overrule science when looking at vaccine data this fall. But Alex Azar, who happens to be their boss’s boss, apparently won’t even give them a chance to stand in the way.

In a new memorandum issued Tuesday last week, the HHS chief stripped the FDA and other health agencies under his purview of their rule making ability, asserting all such power “is reserved to the Secretary.” Sheila Kaplan of the New York Times first obtained and reported the details of the September 15 bulletin.

Covid-19 roundup: J&J be­gins piv­otal Phase III tri­al for vac­cine; Con­tro­ver­sial hu­man chal­lenge tri­als to be­gin in Lon­don — re­port

Johnson & Johnson announced it’s beginning a pivotal Phase III trial for its Covid-19 candidate, JNJ-78436735 — the first single-dose vaccine in this stage.

The Phase III trial, dubbed ENSEMBLE, will enroll 60,000 patients worldwide, making it the largest Phase III study of a Covid-19 vaccine to date. J&J said the candidate achieved positive interim results in a Phase I/IIa study, which will be published “imminently.” There’s a possibility that the first batches will be ready for potential emergency use in early 2021, according to the biotech.

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News brief­ing: PureTech plans Nas­daq de­but with sec­ondary list­ing; GoodRx prices $725M IPO

London Stock Exchange-listed PureTech Health announced Wednesday that it’s looking to extend to Nasdaq. But due to its “strong cash position,” the biotech says it isn’t issuing any new shares in the potential secondary listing.

The company’s shares closed at £256.50 Tuesday on the London Stock Exchange. Its candidate LYT-100 is currently in Phase I development for various indications, including lymphatic flow disorders and fibrotic and inflammatory disorders. PureTech is expecting a Phase Ib readout in lymphatic flow disorders later this year, and is also planning to launch a Phase II study for the drug to treat respiratory conditions experienced after Covid-19.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) (Tasos Katopodis/Pool via AP Images)

The mi­cro-cap that tapped a mask-skep­tic con­gress­man for their Covid DSMB is ap­ply­ing for an EUA. Their ev­i­dence? 21 pa­tients

NeuroRx, the tiny biotech that came under fire last week after Politico reported they selected a congressman and two other acquaintances of the CEO to supervise their Covid-19 drug trial, announced today that they will ask the FDA to authorize their drug based on the results of just 21 patients.

Such an application would test the agency’s standards of evidence for an EUA, which have already come under scrutiny after controversial authorizations for convalescent plasma and hydroxychloroquine. The only other company to discuss their intention to file for an EUA, Eli Lilly, did so after results came back from a randomized control study testing their antibody in over 450 patients.

J&J re­leas­es PhI­II safe­ty blue­print for Covid-19 vac­cine tri­al. How does it stack up to Mod­er­na, Pfiz­er and As­traZeneca?

Along with the initiation of its Phase III Covid-19 vaccine study announced Wednesday morning, Johnson & Johnson also released its trial protocol, giving an inside look at how the company is conducting its late-stage research.

The move comes after the other three companies conducting Phase III’s in the US — Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca — each disclosed their own trial blueprints within the last week. Though the release of such protocols is typically done after trials have been completed, drug developers had come under intense pressure after a brief safety scare in an AstraZeneca trial and amid growing concern of a politically motivated vaccine authorization.

Vas Narasimhan (AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Still held down by clin­i­cal hold, No­var­tis' Zol­gens­ma falls fur­ther be­hind Bio­gen and Roche as FDA asks for a new piv­otal study

Last October, the FDA slowed down Novartis’ quest to extend its gene therapy to older spinal muscular atrophy patients by slapping a partial hold on intrathecal administration. Almost a year later, the hold is still there, and regulators are adding another hurdle required for regulatory submission: a new pivotal confirmatory study.

The new requirement — which departs significantly from Novartis’ prior expectations — will likely stretch the path to registration beyond 2021, when analysts were expecting a BLA submission. That could mean more time for Biogen to reap Spinraza revenues and Roche to ramp up sales of Evrysdi in the absence of a rival.

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