At­las, No­vo-backed biotech reels in ex-Nim­bus CEO Don Nichol­son as ex­ec chair­man, hooks $50M to con­quer ane­mia

Bri­an Mac­Don­ald’s orig­i­nal for­ay in­to treat­ing iron dys­reg­u­la­tion by in­ject­ing hep­cidin, a small pep­tide hor­mone key for iron home­osta­sis, didn’t quite get off the ground. This time, the for­mer GSK ex­ec­u­tive is tak­ing a fresh ap­proach — by reg­u­lat­ing hep­cidin ex­pres­sion with­in the body.

His new com­pa­ny, called Disc Med­i­cine, was seed­ed by At­las Ven­ture in 2017. On Tues­day, it emerged with $50 mil­lion in se­ries A fund­ing, led by No­vo Hold­ings A/S and the par­tic­i­pa­tion of Ac­cess Biotech­nol­o­gy and found­ing in­vestor At­las Ven­ture. The Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts-based com­pa­ny has al­so lured the for­mer CEO of Nim­bus Ther­a­peu­tics, Don Nichol­son, as its ex­ec­u­tive chair­man.

Hep­cidin, or he­pat­ic bac­te­ri­ci­dal pro­tein, was ini­tial­ly iden­ti­fied as a uri­nary an­timi­cro­bial pep­tide rich in cys­teine. It is pro­duced in the liv­er — and now un­der­stood to con­trol the ab­sorp­tion of iron from the di­et and the trans­fer of iron from cel­lu­lar stores for in­fu­sion in­to he­mo­glo­bin.

“It is to iron, what in­sulin is to glu­cose,” Mac­Don­ald told End­points News.

Di­min­ished hep­cidin lev­els trig­ger an iron over­load, while high hep­cidin starves the body of iron and lim­its its abil­i­ty to make red blood cells. Chron­ic hep­cidin dys­reg­u­la­tion is im­pli­cat­ed in con­di­tions as­so­ci­at­ed with im­paired red blood cell pro­duc­tion, such as myelodys­plas­tic syn­dromes, tha­lassemia, and ane­mia.

Disc Med­i­cine, which in­tends to ad­dress both iron over­load and iron de­fi­cien­cy, has two pro­grams in its ar­se­nal. The first is an oral in­hibitor en­gi­neered to in­hib­it ma­trip­tase-2, a key sup­pres­sor of he­pat­ic hep­cidin ex­pres­sion, to treat iron load­ing ane­mias. It is in the lead op­ti­miza­tion stage, and the com­pa­ny plans to have a de­vel­op­ment can­di­date in place in the next twelve months.

The sec­ond pro­gram, which Disc in-li­censed from Ab­b­Vie, is a mon­o­clon­al an­ti­body that tar­gets he­mo­ju­velin — a reg­u­la­tor of hep­cidin pro­duc­tion — to sup­press hep­cidin ex­pres­sion and tack­le ane­mia that is as­so­ci­at­ed with a range of chron­ic in­flam­ma­to­ry and hema­to­log­ic dis­eases.  It is in pre­clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment.

If all goes well, Mac­Don­ald an­tic­i­pates both pro­grams should be in the clin­ic by 2021.

Back in 2011, Mac­Don­ald co-found­ed Mer­ganser Biotech to fo­cus sole­ly on treat­ing dis­or­ders as­so­ci­at­ed with iron over­load, by in­ject­ing hep­cidin mimet­ic pep­tides. But that ef­fort flailed in Phase I, he said.

Oth­er drug de­vel­op­ers are still bet­ting the ap­proach will work, in­clud­ing Pro­tag­o­nist Ther­a­peu­tics. The Newark, Cal­i­for­nia-based com­pa­ny’s lead ex­per­i­men­tal drug, PTG-300, is a hep­cidin mimet­ic pep­tide in mid-stage de­vel­op­ment for use in be­ta-tha­lassemia.

For Mac­Don­ald, the Mer­ganser fail­ure came with perks — he re­al­ized that an oral small mol­e­cule ap­proach is more pa­tient-friend­ly and that it was “prob­a­bly safer to ad­min­is­ter some­thing that changes the body’s pro­duc­tion hep­cidin in rather than hav­ing to ad­min­is­ter an­oth­er dose of hep­cidin.”

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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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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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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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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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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An ex­pe­ri­enced biotech is stitched to­geth­er from transpa­cif­ic parts, with 265 staffers and a fo­cus on ‘new bi­ol­o­gy’

Over the past few years, different teams at a pair of US-based biotechs and in labs in Japan have labored to piece together a group of cancer drug programs, sharing a single corporate umbrella with research colleagues in Japan. But now their far-flung operations have been knit together into a single unit, creating a pipeline with 10 cancer drug development programs — going from early-stage right into Phase III — and a host of discovery projects managed by a collective staff of some 265 people.

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Joseph Kim, Inovio CEO (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

Pos­i­tive Covid-19 vac­cine da­ta? New mouse study? OWS in­clu­sion? Yep, but some­how, the usu­al tid­bits from In­ovio back­fire

You don’t go more than 40 years in biotech without ever getting a product to market unless you can learn the art of writing a promotional press release. And Inovio captures the prize in baiting the hook.

Tuesday morning Inovio, which has been struggling to get its Covid-19 vaccine lined up for mass manufacturing, put out a release that touched on virtually every hot button in pandemic PR.

There was, first and foremost, an interim snapshot of efficacy from their Phase I program for INO-4800.

Jan van de Winkel, Genmab CEO

Seat­tle Ge­net­ics, Gen­mab turn on TV for a high­light reel in cer­vi­cal can­cer — but a ri­val biotech promis­es a bet­ter show

Seattle Genetics $SGEN and their partners at Genmab $GMAB polished up some positive Phase II numbers for their antibody drug conjugate tisotumab vedotin — you can call it TV — for recurrent cervical cancer. And while they mapped out a shortcut to a potential quick approval, the big challenge for this team is being presented by a rival biotech which muscled its way into the spotlight for the same indication a year ago.

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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.