Craig Gibbs, Asher Bio CEO (Asher)

Ash­er Bio­ther­a­peu­tics joins search for a bet­ter IL-2 sans the tox­i­c­i­ties

Can IL-2 ther­a­pies — which can be pow­er­ful against can­cer but in­fa­mous for their tox­ic side ef­fects — be made in­her­ent­ly more spe­cif­ic? For Ash­er Bio­ther­a­peu­tics, that’s the $55 mil­lion ques­tion.

Ivana Djuret­ic and Andy Ye­ung left their jobs in can­cer im­munol­o­gy and pro­tein en­gi­neer­ing at Pfiz­er in 2019 to start Ash­er with the idea that they could im­prove the ef­fi­ca­cy of im­munother­a­pies. More specif­i­cal­ly, they want­ed to know if re­strict­ing the ac­tiv­i­ty of a cy­tokine to on­ly the cells that mat­ter would coun­ter­in­tu­itive­ly re­sult in bet­ter ther­a­peu­tics.

They de­cid­ed to start with IL-2, what Djuret­ic called “one of the most ex­cit­ing chal­lenges to­day.” And that work, she said, led them to an “aha mo­ment.”

Ivana Djuret­ic

“We sort of re­al­ized that we could … mod­u­late spe­cif­ic im­mune cell sub­sets in many con­texts, not on­ly IL-2, not on­ly CD8,” through a process called cis-tar­get­ing, Djuret­ic said. Cis-tar­get­ing is an en­gi­neer­ing ap­proach that works by re­quir­ing the si­mul­ta­ne­ous en­gage­ment of two re­cep­tors on the same im­mune cell for ac­ti­va­tion.

Djuret­ic and Ye­ung ran in­to Third Rock at an ear­ly 2020 meet­ing in Boston, and the rest is his­to­ry. Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Robert Schreiber and Nether­lands Can­cer In­sti­tute top sci­en­tist Ton Schu­mach­er, who were in­volved with Third Rock, hopped on board as co-founders. And on Tues­day morn­ing, the com­pa­ny un­veiled a $55 mil­lion Se­ries A to take its lead on­col­o­gy pro­gram, AB248, to the clin­ic next year.

Andy Ye­ung

“So a lot of peo­ple are try­ing to tar­get IL-2 spa­tial­ly to the site of the tu­mor, but it’s an in­her­ent­ly non­spe­cif­ic mol­e­cule. So we think there’s on­ly a lim­it­ed amount of speci­fici­ty we can get out of that,” CEO Craig Gibbs said. “What we’re try­ing to do is make IL-2 in­her­ent­ly spe­cif­ic, so it on­ly binds CD8+ T cells, which is the ones that we want, and not to T regs which are go­ing to be im­muno­sup­pres­sive, and not to NK cells which just cause tox­i­c­i­ty, and not to en­dothe­lial cells which cause vas­cu­lar leak.”

Gibbs left his job as CBO at Forty Sev­en to join Ash­er last sum­mer, af­ter the for­mer was bought by Gilead for near­ly $5 bil­lion. That Sep­tem­ber, he was “grat­i­fied” by some “re­al­ly stel­lar” da­ta from Schreiber’s lab. In vit­ro and mon­key stud­ies have shown a “much larg­er ex­pan­sion” of CD8 cells, with­out the ac­ti­va­tion of reg­u­la­to­ry T cells or NK cells, he said.

In ad­di­tion to on­col­o­gy, the Ash­er team be­lieves the plat­form could have ap­pli­ca­tions in au­toim­mu­ni­ty and in­fec­tious dis­ease.

The Se­ries A was led by Third Rock with par­tic­i­pa­tion from Box­er Cap­i­tal of Tavi­s­tock Group, In­vus, Y Com­bi­na­tor and MBC Bi­o­labs.

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

FDA hands ac­cel­er­at­ed nod to Seagen, Gen­mab's so­lo ADC in cer­vi­cal can­cer, but com­bo stud­ies look even more promis­ing

Biopharma’s resident antibody-drug conjugate expert Seagen has scored a clutch of oncology approvals in recent years, finding gold in what are known as “third-gen” ADCs. Now, another of their partnered conjugates is ready for prime time.

The FDA on Monday handed an accelerated approval to Seagen and Genmab’s Tivdak (tisotumab vedotin-tftv, or “TV”) in second-line patients with recurrent or metastatic cervical cancer who previously progressed after chemotherapy rather than PD-(L)1 systemic therapy, the companies said in a release.

Rafaèle Tordjman (Jeito Capital)

Con­ti­nu­ity and di­ver­si­ty: Rafaèle Tord­j­man's women-led VC firm tops out first fund at $630M

For a first-time fund, Jeito Capital talks a lot about continuity.

Rafaèle Tordjman had spotlighted that concept ever since she started building the firm in 2018, promising to go the extra mile(s) with biotech entrepreneurs while pushing them to reach patients faster.

Coincidentally, the lack of continuity was one of the sore spots listed in a report about the European healthcare sector published that same year by the European Investment Bank — whose fund is one of the LPs, alongside the American pension fund Teacher Retirement System of Texas and Singapore’s Temasek, to help Jeito close its first fund at $630 million (€534 million). As previously reported, Sanofi had chimed in €50 million, marking its first investment in a French life sciences fund.

Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

Zol­gens­ma patent spat brews be­tween No­var­tis and Re­genxbio as top No­var­tis gene ther­a­py ex­ec de­parts

Regenxbio, a small licensor of gene therapy viral vectors spun out from the University of Pennsylvania, is now finding itself in the middle of some major league patent fights.

In addition to a patent suit with Sarepta Therapeutics from last September, Novartis, is now trying to push its smaller partner out of the way. The Swiss biopharma licensed Regenxbio’s AAV9 vector for its $2.1 million spinal muscular atrophy therapy Zolgensma.

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Time for round 2: Il­lu­mi­na-backed VC snags $325M for its next fund

Illumina Ventures closed off its second investment fund with a total commitment of $325 million, offering fresh fuel to back a slate of startups that have already included a smorgasbord of companies, covering everything from diagnostics to biotech drug development and genomics.

Fund II brings the total investment under Illumina Ventures’ oversight to $560 million, which has been focused on early-stage companies. And it has a transatlantic portfolio that includes SQZ, Twist and Encoded Therapeutics.

Volker Wagner (L) and Jeff Legos

As Bay­er, No­var­tis stack up their ra­dio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal da­ta at #ES­MO21, a key de­bate takes shape

Ten years ago, a small Norwegian biotech by the name of Algeta showed up at ESMO — then the European Multidisciplinary Cancer Conference 2011 — and declared that its Bayer-partnered targeted radionuclide therapy, radium-223 chloride, boosted the overall survival of castration-resistant prostate cancer patients with symptomatic bone metastases.

In a Phase III study dubbed ALSYMPCA, patients who were treated with radium-223 chloride lived a median of 14 months compared to 11.2 months. The FDA would stamp an approval on it based on those data two years later, after Bayer snapped up Algeta and christened the drug Xofigo.

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Raju Mohan, Ventyx Biosciences CEO

Months af­ter a mam­moth raise, Ven­tyx Bio­sciences dips back in­to ven­ture well

Several months after emerging from what CEO Raju Mohan called “quiet mode” with a mammoth $114 million raise, Ventyx Biosciences is now making its plans for the clinic loud and clear.

The California-based immune modulation player kicked the week off with a $51 million Series B, while also naming some key hires ahead of its big clinical push.

The CMO slot is going to Jörn Drappa, former CMO at Viela Bio before it was bought out by Horizon Therapeutics earlier this year. The AstraZeneca vet stayed on at Horizon for a while as executive VP of R&D before making the jump to Ventyx.