Armed with $42.5M, Gem­i­ni em­braces the Goldilocks strat­e­gy in bring­ing pre­ci­sion med to AMD

For most biotech star­tups, the big chal­lenge lies in de­vel­op­ing one or two new drugs that promise to do a bet­ter job of tar­get­ing a par­tic­u­lar dis­ease.

But Gem­i­ni Ther­a­peu­tics — the lat­est in a long line­up of Cam­bridge, MA biotechs to roll out this year — isn’t like most up­starts.

James McLaugh­lin

CEO James McLaugh­lin has set out to divvy up the large pop­u­la­tion of pa­tients at high risk of dry age-re­lat­ed mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion — AMD — in­to small, ge­net­i­cal­ly de­fined buck­ets of pa­tients, and then find the right drug most like­ly to help them. And that’s big enough to even­tu­al­ly in­volve a whole pipeline of ther­a­peu­tics.

“There are ge­net­ic vari­ants that in­crease the risk of dis­ease by 20 times or more. In­ter­est­ing tar­gets that were nev­er pur­sued; that is what got the pro­gram start­ed. Could we de­vel­op ther­a­peu­tics that were fea­si­ble and tractable for the eye?” says McLaugh­lin, the for­mer op­er­a­tions chief at gene ther­a­py pi­o­neer Voy­ager.

That process be­gan in stealth two and a half years ago, says McLaugh­lin, fol­lowed by the first seed fund­ing in 2016 as Gem­i­ni start­ed work­ing on the R&D side of the busi­ness. Now McLaugh­lin has a $42.5 mil­lion launch round co-led by At­las Ven­ture, Light­stone Ven­tures and Or­biMed. And the grow­ing 7-mem­ber team at Gem­i­ni will be start­ing out with three ba­sic tech­nolo­gies: re­com­bi­nant pro­teins, mon­o­clon­al an­ti­bod­ies and gene ther­a­py.

Find the right pop­u­la­tion first, he says, and you can de­ter­mine the right ther­a­peu­tic ap­proach sec­ond.

“It’s def­i­nite­ly am­bi­tious,” says the CEO, re­quir­ing dif­fer­ent teams to break down the tech and the pre­ci­sion med­i­cine they’re pur­su­ing. So there’s a team of gene ther­a­py ex­perts, a team on tar­get bi­ol­o­gy and a team on reti­nal dis­ease and AMD. “A lot of the con­ver­sa­tion is bridg­ing the gap be­tween the dis­ci­plines,” he adds, with ad­vis­ers and founders from around the globe.

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Ed­in­burgh’s Paul Bar­low, Andy Her­bert and Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty’s Jo­han­na Sed­don are the sci­en­tif­ic founders.

Gem­i­ni’s sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­so­ry board in­cludes:

  • Reti­nal dis­ease and AMD ex­perts Alan Wright from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ed­in­burgh, Dean Bok from UCLA and Bruce Jaf­fee.
  • Tar­get bi­ol­o­gy ex­perts in­clude John Atkin­son from Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis, Michael Ehrmann from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Es­sen-Duis­berg, Kevin March­bank and Claire Har­ris from New­cas­tle Uni­ver­si­ty, and Si­mon Clark from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Man­ches­ter.
  • Gene ther­a­py ex­perts in­clude Shan­non Boye from Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da, Ar­avind Asokan from the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na, and Chris Mueller and Clau­dio Pun­zo from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Med­ical School.

At this stage, Gem­i­ni has iden­ti­fied hun­dreds of ge­net­ic mu­ta­tions that play a role in the eye dis­ease. They’re start­ing out with the “Goldilocks zone,” small groups of 1% to 2% or so of the pa­tients like­ly to ben­e­fit the most from one of their tar­get­ed ap­proach­es. The big­ger groups can wait un­til lat­er, af­ter the biotech has shown what it can do with pa­tient pop­u­la­tions that re­sem­ble those found in rare dis­eases, where small tri­als can tell you a lot.

The re­cent up­beat re­view of Spark’s ground­break­ing gene ther­a­py for the eye fo­cused con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion on just how at­trac­tive the eye is as a drug tar­get. It’s large­ly con­tained, al­low­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors to take a high­ly fo­cused ap­proach that avoids sys­temic threats. And it can be more straight­for­ward in as­sess­ing a drug’s im­pact.

For now, it’s Gem­i­ni’s en­tire world.

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.