Bayer-owned AskBio will shift focus toward its doggybone DNA in restructure with Touchlight
The year was 2018, and AskBio CEO Sheila Mikhail wanted 100% controlling interest in a joint venture with Touchlight. The company was in negotiation with an unnamed Big Pharma for a collaboration that would have provided it with enough cash to make that a reality. After 18 months of negotiations and agreements in place, the Big Pharma deal fell through, and so did Mikhail’s Touchlight ambitions.
Running a biotech is no different than managing a family’s finances, she said. You have to stick to a budget.
But now, a revised arrangement has given both AskBio and Touchlight co-exclusive rights to its doggybone DNA technology through their respective CDMOs. AskBio will shift its focus away from plasmid DNA entirely to the manufacturing of dbDNA, a move that Mikhail in particular believes the industry will latch on to.
“Now that we have 100% control, we can make the investments we want to build up the business,” she said in a call to Endpoints News Wednesday. “Like anything, you’re subject to 50-50 decision making in a joint venture.”
AskBio will now completely own its San Sebastian manufacturing site for the research, clinical and commercial AAV dbDNA. Meanwhile, Touchlight AAV will rebrand to TAAV, retain the right to make AAV dbDNA both for AskBio’s internal product development pipeline as well as third parties. It also regains rights to manufacture its dbDNA for AAV production.
The San Sebastian site is a part of a small gene manufacturing ecocenter in the middle of Europe, with a Viralgen — a CDMO born out of a joint venture with Columbus Venture — building down the street in Spain. The sites employ a more-than-typical amount of young women in their 20s and 30s, something Mikhail said can be attributed to the women in leadership at those facilities.
dbDNA is a linear, double-stranded, covalently closed molecule that is made during the enzymatic manufacturing process. It can enable faster and safer DNA production without contaminating the plasmid DNA background. It can take just weeks to produce, as opposed to months, and is manufactured in a smaller setting, meaning it can be quickly scaled up and is highly transportable.
AskBio was acquired by Bayer for $4 billion in October 2020. That marked the start of a push into cell and gene therapies, just two years after it cut 900 R&D jobs after a restructuring move. Bayer was intrigued by the expertise in building a better AAV vector, something that had stumped many across gene therapy. Its pipeline features candidates for congestive heart failure, multiple system atrophy, LGMD 2i, Parkinson’s disease and Pompe disease.
Meanwhile, Touchlight made noise with its $60 million financing round last March, when it suggested that it could triple the production of dbDNA and supply up to 1 billion Covid-19 shots per month. It later landed a $65 million round in September, at a time when demand for synthetic DNA has reached an all-time high. It nearly doubled its team from about 65 to 125 employees at the end of 2021.