Back to the be­gin­ning: Pfiz­er seeds dis­cov­ery-stage neu­ro start­up Mag­no­lia (af­ter ax­ing its own brain R&D)

Af­ter yank­ing its own neu­ro­science ef­forts —  and re­treat­ing from the fail­ure-strewn bat­tle­ground of brain sci­ence — Pfiz­er is ped­al­ing back to the be­gin­ning in this field. The phar­ma gi­ant is fund­ing a brand-new MD An­der­son spin­out that’s ques­tion­ing the very ba­sics of neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion.

The start­up, called Mag­no­lia Neu­ro­sciences (“Mag­no­lia” as a nod to its Texas roots), is be­ing rather tightlipped about what it’s work­ing on. But CEO Thong Le tells me the com­pa­ny is steer­ing away from tra­di­tion­al ef­forts in the field.

In short, the start­up is tap­ping a body of lit­er­a­ture around a bi­o­log­i­cal process that oc­curs in the womb dur­ing the ear­li­est stages of life. When an em­bryo is form­ing, the body trash­es ex­cess neu­rons in a process called “pro­grammed cell death.” Re­search shows that this same process is re­ac­ti­vat­ed in the brain through­out the course of Alzheimer’s dis­ease, among oth­er neu­ro con­di­tions. Mag­no­lia is hy­poth­e­siz­ing that block­ing spe­cif­ic com­po­nents of this process will pre­serve brain tis­sue in hu­mans and — hope­ful­ly — pre­vent mem­o­ry loss. That’s what they’ve seen in mouse mod­els, any­way.

“Not on­ly can you pre­serve brain tis­sue and en­hance mem­o­ry, but — from a more bi­o­log­i­cal point of view — you could dra­mat­i­cal­ly change the course and de­vel­op­ment of neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­ease,” Le said.

To get to work on the idea, Mag­no­lia has round­ed up $31 mil­lion in a Se­ries A packed with high pro­file cor­po­rate VCs. The stel­lar syn­di­cate was put to­geth­er by Ac­cel­er­a­tor Life Sci­ence Part­ners, a start­up fac­to­ry that churns out these ven­tures by shop­ping aca­d­e­m­ic labs and oth­er hubs of in­no­va­tion around the globe. Once they find some­thing promis­ing, they put to­geth­er a team and spin the tech out in­to a start­up of its own.

It should be not­ed that Le is the CEO at Ac­cel­er­a­tor, which is why he’s head­ing up Mag­no­lia for the time be­ing.

Ac­cel­er­a­tor has satel­lites in New York, Seat­tle, and San Diego, and has launched sev­en star­tups since its in­cep­tion. One of their ven­tures is Lo­do Ther­a­peu­tics, the New York-based com­pa­ny that scored a $969 mil­lion (biobucks) deal with Genen­tech in metage­nomics ear­li­er this year.

Mag­no­lia man­aged to at­tract a slew of cor­po­rate VCs, in­clud­ing the afore­men­tioned Pfiz­er, Eli Lil­ly, Ab­b­Vie Ven­tures, and John­son & John­son In­no­va­tion, among oth­ers. You can see the full list on the com­pa­ny’s press re­lease.

Af­ter scrap­ping its own neu­ro­science work ear­li­er this year, some might see Pfiz­er’s in­vest­ment in star­tups as putting a bandaid over a gap­ing hole. But the phar­ma gi­ant is mak­ing an ef­fort to seed in­no­va­tion out­side of its own labs. In June, the com­pa­ny com­mit­ted an ad­di­tion­al $150 mil­lion to its VC group to in­vest in neu­ro­science star­tups. This in­vest­ment in Mag­no­lia is one of the first bets, it seems.

Le said it ac­tu­al­ly makes a lot of sense for large phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies to leave the ear­ly dis­cov­ery work to small­er biotechs.

“When it comes to de­vel­op­ing drugs for com­plex dis­eases like Alzheimer’s, to some ex­tent we’re muck­ing with bi­ol­o­gy that we don’t re­al­ly have a per­fect un­der­stand­ing of, which re­quires tak­ing cal­cu­lat­ed risk from a de­vel­op­ment per­spec­tive,” he said. “Large phar­ma com­pa­nies that are pub­licly trad­ed don’t have as much flex­i­bil­i­ty as they’d like to have in terms of be­ing ag­ile and tak­ing the leaps of faith need­ed to push an ear­ly stage pro­gram ag­gres­sive­ly for­ward.”

Le said this lat­est round of fund­ing should move Mag­no­lia to­ward clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, al­though he’s not shar­ing time­lines just yet.


Im­age: Ac­cel­er­a­tor and Mag­no­lia CEO Thong Le. Mag­no­lia

Biotech and Big Phar­ma: A blue­print for a suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship

Strategic partnerships have long been an important contributor to how drugs are discovered and developed. For decades, big pharma companies have been forming alliances with biotech innovators to increase R&D productivity, expand geographical reach and better manage late-stage commercialization costs.

Noël Brown, Managing Director and Head of Biotechnology Investment Banking, and Greg Wiederrecht, Ph.D., Managing Director in the Global Healthcare Investment Banking Group at RBC Capital Markets, are no strangers to the importance of these tie-ups. Noël has over 20 years of investment banking experience in the industry. Before moving to the banking world in 2015, Greg was the Vice President and Head of External Scientific Affairs (ESA) at Merck, where he was responsible for the scientific assessment of strategic partnership opportunities worldwide.

No­var­tis' sec­ond at­tempt to repli­cate a stun­ning can­cer re­sult falls flat

Novartis’ hopes of turning one of the most surprising trial data points of the last decade into a lung cancer drug has taken another setback.

The Swiss pharma announced Monday that its IL-1 inhibitor canakinumab did not significantly extend the lives or slow the disease progression of patients with previously untreated locally advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer when compared to standard of-care alone.

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Robert Califf (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP Images, File)

As buzz on Califf FDA nom heats up, in­dus­try and agency in­sid­ers of­fer a strong nod for the ‘per­fect’ choice

For once in this long, dramatic road to finding a new FDA commissioner, there’s been some continuity. Both CNN and Politico reported this weekend that Rob Califf met with President Biden to discuss the permanent commish role, following earlier news broken by the Washington Post that all signs point to Califf.

Although there may be a few Democrats who continue to grandstand about the dangers of COI (Califf has worked for Verily, sits on the board of Centessa Pharmaceuticals, and has other ties to industry research), with the pandemic ongoing and the need for some kind of continuity at FDA mounting, Califf is likely to meet the same fate as when he first won Senate confirmation in 2016, by a vote of 89-4 — Bernie Sanders and 6 others didn’t vote.

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AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot (Raphael Lafargue/Abaca/Sipa USA)

A com­bo of As­traZeneca's Imfinzi and chemo wins where oth­ers have failed in piv­otal bil­iary tract test

Looking to run with the big dogs in the PD-(L)1 class, AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi has a tall hill to climb to compete in an increasingly bustling market. An aggressive combo strategy for the drug has paid off so far, and now AstraZeneca is adding another notch to its belt.

A combo of Imfinzi (durvalumab) and chemotherapy significantly extended the lives of first-line patients with advanced biliary tract cancer over chemo alone, according to topline results from the Phase III TOPAZ-1 study revealed Monday.

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Sean Ianchulev, Eyenovia CEO and CMO

Re­cent court de­ci­sion push­es FDA to re­ject and re­clas­si­fy drug-de­vice com­bo, crush­ing shares

Back in April, the FDA lost a crucial court case in which its broad discretion of regulating medical products that might satisfy the legal definitions of either “drug” and/or “medical device” was sharply curtailed.

In addition to the appeals court ruling that Genus Medical Technologies’ contrast agent barium sulfate (aka Vanilla SilQ) should not be considered a drug, as the FDA had initially ruled, but as a medical device, the agency also was forced to spell out which drugs would transition to devices as a result of the ruling.

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Peter Greenleaf, Aurinia CEO

Af­ter pass­ing on Ac­celeron, Bris­tol My­ers eyes bolt-on ac­qui­si­tion of au­toim­mune spe­cial­ist — re­port

Bristol Myers Squibb is looking to beef up its autoimmune portfolio by scooping up Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, Bloomberg reported.

The recent overtures to Aurinia, relayed by anonymous insiders, came just as Bristol Myers turned down buyout talks with partners at Acceleron — which Merck ultimately struck a deal to acquire for $11.5 billion. Bristol Myers has reportedly decided to cash out on its minority stake, likely bagging $1.3 billion in the process, while keeping the royalty deals on two of Acceleron’s blood disorder drugs.

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So — that pig-to-hu­man trans­plant; Po­ten­tial di­a­betes cure reach­es pa­tient; Ac­cused MIT sci­en­tist lash­es back; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

We’re incredibly excited to welcome Beth Bulik, seasoned pharma marketing reporter, to the team. You can find much of her work in our new Marketing channel — and in her weekly newsletter, Endpoints PharmaRx, which will launch in early November. Add it to your subscriptions here.

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NYU surgeon transplants an engineered pig kidney into the outside of a brain-dead patient (Joe Carrotta/NYU Langone Health)

No, sci­en­tists are not any clos­er to pig-to-hu­man trans­plants than they were last week

Steve Holtzman was awoken by a 1 a.m. call from a doctor at Duke University asking if he could put some pigs on a plane and fly them from Ohio to North Carolina that day. A motorcyclist had gotten into a horrific crash, the doctor explained. He believed the pigs’ livers, sutured onto the patient’s skin like an external filter, might be able to tide the young man over until a donor liver became available.

UP­DAT­ED: Agenus calls out FDA for play­ing fa­vorites with Mer­ck, pulls cer­vi­cal can­cer BLA at agen­cy's re­quest

While criticizing the FDA for what may be some favoritism towards Merck, Agenus on Friday officially pulled its accelerated BLA for its anti-PD-1 inhibitor balstilimab as a potential second-line treatment for cervical cancer because of the recent full approval for Merck’s Keytruda in the same indication.

The company said the BLA, which was due for an FDA decision by Dec. 16, was withdrawn “when the window for accelerated approval of balstilimab closed,” thanks to the conversion of Keytruda’s accelerated approval to a full approval four months prior to its PDUFA date.

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