Bil­lion­aire-backed Park­er In­sti­tute tack­les the Holy Grail of can­cer R&D — with a vir­tu­al un­known

Up un­til about 6 months ago, Fred Rams­dell, the vice pres­i­dent for re­search at the Park­er In­sti­tute for Can­cer Im­munother­a­py, had nev­er heard of Tes­sa Ther­a­peu­tics. But he and some of the top can­cer re­searchers as­so­ci­at­ed with the Park­er In­sti­tute’s far flung net­work of in­ves­ti­ga­tors have been mak­ing up for lost time.

Fred Rams­dell

The Park­er In­sti­tute — fund­ed by tech mogul Sean Park­er — is an­nounc­ing Mon­day that it is mak­ing a leap in­to next-gen adop­tive cell ther­a­pies for can­cer, join­ing with Sin­ga­pore-based Tes­sa. Their new biotech al­ly is now en­gaged in a Phase III tri­al that hopes to open a new chap­ter in the field, look­ing to share the spot­light with the lead­ers which have dom­i­nat­ed the im­munother­a­py are­na so far. And the part­ners have some big plans for the fu­ture.

“Ob­vi­ous­ly there’s a lot of press and clin­i­cal da­ta and ex­cite­ment around CAR-T,” says Rams­dell, the vice pres­i­dent for re­search at the Park­er In­sti­tute. “That’s great and won­der­ful. What Tes­sa is do­ing is a lot dif­fer­ent.”

In­stead of ex­tract­ing T cells and reengi­neer­ing them to hunt down and kill can­cer cells, a CAR-T ap­proach that re­quires ag­gres­sive man­age­ment of some se­vere re­ac­tions but with some re­mark­able re­sults for liq­uid can­cers, Tes­sa takes blood and ex­pands and adapts virus-spe­cif­ic T cells to tar­get vi­ral­ly-as­so­ci­at­ed tu­mors like cer­vi­cal and head and neck can­cer, swarm­ing the cells.

“As much as its tech­no­log­i­cal as­pect, it’s al­so a philo­soph­i­cal align­ment,” Rams­dell adds about the al­liance. “They have a very good sci­en­tif­ic un­der­pin­ning. They know what they’re do­ing; very well round­ed….You nev­er know, but it looks re­al­ly quite good.”

In this new col­lab­o­ra­tion, star im­munother­a­py spe­cial­ists like Phil Green­berg at the Fred Hutch and Crys­tal Mack­all of Stan­ford are be­ing brought in to work with Tes­sa’s re­search team, head­ed by Chief Sci­en­tif­ic Of­fi­cer John Con­nol­ly and CMO Han Chong Toh, the deputy di­rec­tor of the Na­tion­al Can­cer Cen­tre Sin­ga­pore and one of the top can­cer in­ves­ti­ga­tors in the re­gion. Oth­er in­ves­ti­ga­tors in the Park­er net­work can al­so pitch ideas on ad­vanc­ing the work, pos­si­bly even get­ting fund­ing for small proof-of-con­cept stud­ies to test their no­tions.

“In any col­lab­o­ra­tion,” says Rams­dell, “we can be the hub of that wheel and bring the dif­fer­ent ap­proach­es to­geth­er.”

That fits in per­fect­ly with Tes­sa’s strat­e­gy, Con­nol­ly tells me. The vet­er­an Bay­lor Col­lege of Med­i­cine in­ves­ti­ga­tor ran in­to Han Chong Toh — who had been at the Cen­ter for Cell and Gene Ther­a­py at Bay­lor Col­lege of Med­i­cine work­ing un­der found­ing di­rec­tor Mal­colm Bren­ner — af­ter he moved to Sin­ga­pore in 2010 to set up a lab.

John Con­nol­ly

Tes­sa’s Phase III will read out in 2018, says Con­nol­ly, giv­ing them a piv­otal chance to demon­strate how they can trans­form B cells with the Ep­stein-Barr virus, mov­ing be­yond ran­dom ac­ti­va­tion of T cells with chimeric anti­gen re­cep­tors to a po­ten­tial­ly much more tar­get­ed cell ther­a­py de­signed to con­tin­u­al­ly hunt down and kill spe­cif­ic can­cer cells. The HPV pro­gram can do the same for head and neck and oth­er can­cers. And when you start to mar­ry this ap­proach with oth­er im­munother­a­pies, you can start to vi­su­al­ize Tes­sa’s goal: elim­i­nat­ing sol­id tu­mors, the Holy Grail of cell ther­a­py.

Con­nol­ly and Han Chong Toh are di­rect­ing the late-stage pro­gram, sanc­tioned with the FDA’s fast track and or­phan drug des­ig­na­tions, which is be­ing con­duct­ed in 5 coun­tries with 29 sites.

Rams­dell was at­tract­ed by an ap­proach that should avoid off­site tox­i­c­i­ty. And with the nat­ur­al sig­nal­ing in­volved, he al­so be­lieves you’re more like­ly to cre­ate mem­o­ry cells that can keep up the at­tack — promis­ing a durable re­sponse.

“Tes­sa (with a base of IP in-li­censed from Bay­lor Col­lege of Med­i­cine) adds their own se­cret sauce of cy­tokines that ac­ti­vate in a par­tic­u­lar way for good killing and dura­bil­i­ty,” notes Rams­dell, help­ing avoid the risk of burn­ing the cells out, which hap­pens when you mul­ti­ply their num­bers.

The ear­ly re­sults “showed beau­ti­ful sur­vival da­ta,” says Con­nol­ly, which helped at­tract a line­up of fam­i­ly of­fices and high net worth in­vestors to back a biotech that now has a staff of about 130.

Tes­sa turned up at AS­CO in ear­ly June with Phase II da­ta on 35 pa­tients with rare cas­es of Stage 4c na­sopha­ryn­geal car­ci­no­ma, or NPC, as­so­ci­at­ed with Ep­stein-Barr virus. Their con­clu­sion:

The 2- and 3-year over­all sur­vival rates were 62.9% and 37.1% re­spec­tive­ly, which rep­re­sent the best re­port­ed sur­vival out­come for first-line treat­ment of ad­vanced NPC when com­pared to his­tor­i­cal clin­i­cal tri­als.

Tes­sa added that it has bio­mark­ers to iden­ti­fy which pa­tients are like­ly to ben­e­fit, the kind of strat­e­gy that the FDA prefers.

‘We’re very in­ter­est­ed in mov­ing CAR-T to next-gen as well, putting pay­loads in­to CAR-T, etcetera, etcetera,” says Rams­dell. “The par­al­lel here is that as you move in­to sol­id tu­mors, Tes­sa is more ad­vanced tech­ni­cal­ly, con­cep­tu­al­ly and philo­soph­i­cal­ly.”

Just a few months ago Tes­sa launched a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Rochester, MN-based Vyr­i­ad, which has clin­i­cal-stage on­colyt­ic virus­es that in­fect and de­stroy can­cer cells, but al­so use anti­gens to flag an im­mune sys­tem at­tack (one of a group of next-gen on­colyt­ics com­pa­nies look­ing to do T-Vec bet­ter. Tes­sa sees it as a match of syn­er­gis­tic tech­nolo­gies for fight­ing can­cer.

In March Tes­sa al­so bought out an­oth­er Sin­ga­pore start­up, Eu­chloe, which has been work­ing on a slate of an­ti­bod­ies, in­clud­ing PD-1, as well as chimeric anti­gen re­cep­tor tech­nolo­gies for next-gen CARs.

Tes­sa may just be still in the ear­ly stages of its de­but on the glob­al biotech scene. But with Asian biotechs tak­ing a more cen­tral role in drug de­vel­op­ment, it could al­ready be on the verge of do­ing some­thing big.

Vlad Coric (Biohaven)

In an­oth­er dis­ap­point­ment for in­vestors, FDA slaps down Bio­haven’s re­vised ver­sion of an old ALS drug

Biohaven is at risk of making a habit of disappointing its investors. 

Late Friday the biotech $BHVN reported that the FDA had rejected its application for riluzole, an old drug that they had made over into a sublingual formulation that dissolves under the tongue. According to Biohaven, the FDA had a problem with the active ingredient used in a bioequivalence study back in 2017, which they got from the Canadian drugmaker Apotex.

Francesco De Rubertis

Medicxi is rolling out its biggest fund ever to back Eu­rope's top 'sci­en­tists with strange ideas'

Francesco De Rubertis built Medicxi to be the kind of biotech venture player he would have liked to have known back when he was a full time scientist.

“When I was a scientist 20 years ago I would have loved Medicxi,’ the co-founder tells me. It’s the kind of place run by and for investigators, what the Medicxi partner calls “scientists with strange ideas — a platform for the drug hunter and scientific entrepreneur. That’s what I wanted when I was a scientist.”

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Af­ter a decade, Vi­iV CSO John Pot­tage says it's time to step down — and he's hand­ing the job to long­time col­league Kim Smith

ViiV Healthcare has always been something unique in the global drug industry.

Owned by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer — with GSK in the lead as majority owner — it was created 10 years ago in a time of deep turmoil for the field as something independent of the pharma giants, but with access to lots of infrastructural support on demand. While R&D at the mother ship inside GSK was souring, a razor-focused ViiV provided a rare bright spot, challenging Gilead on a lucrative front in delivering new combinations that require fewer therapies with a more easily tolerated regimen.

They kept a massive number of people alive who would otherwise have been facing a death sentence. And they made money.

And throughout, John Pottage has been the chief scientific and chief medical officer.

Until now.

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Norbert Bischofberger. Kronos

Backed by some of the biggest names in biotech, Nor­bert Bischof­berg­er gets his megaround for plat­form tech out of MIT

A little over a year ago when I reported on Norbert Bischofberger’s jump from the CSO job at giant Gilead to a tiny upstart called Kronos, I noted that with his connections in biotech finance, that $18 million launch round he was starting off with could just as easily have been $100 million or more.

With his first anniversary now behind him, Bischofberger has that mega-round in the bank.

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Chas­ing Roche's ag­ing block­buster fran­chise, Am­gen/Al­ler­gan roll out Avastin, Her­ceptin knock­offs at dis­count

Let the long battle for biosimilars in the cancer space begin.

Amgen has launched its Avastin and Herceptin copycats — licensed from the predecessors of Allergan — almost two years after the FDA had stamped its approval on Mvasi (bevacizumab-awwb) and three months after the Kanjinti OK (trastuzumab-anns). While the biotech had been fielding biosimilars in Europe, this marks their first foray in the US — and the first oncology biosimilars in the country.

Seer adds ex-FDA chief Mark Mc­Clel­lan to the board; Her­cules Cap­i­tal makes it of­fi­cial for new CEO Scott Bluestein

→ On the same day it announced a $17.5 million Series C, life sciences and health data company Seer unveiled that it had lured former FDA commissioner and ex-CMS administrator Mark McClellan on to its board. “Mark’s deep understanding of the health care ecosystem and visionary insights on policy reform will be crucial in informing our thinking as we work to bring our liquid biopsy and life sciences products to market,” said Seer chief and founder Omid Farokhzad in a statement.

Daniel O'Day

No­var­tis hands off 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams to the an­tivi­ral R&D mas­ters at Gilead

Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day’s new task hunting up a CSO for the company isn’t stopping the industry’s dominant antiviral player from doing pipeline deals.

The big biotech today snapped up 3 preclinical antiviral programs from pharma giant Novartis, with drugs promising to treat human rhinovirus, influenza and herpes viruses. We don’t know what the upfront is, but the back end has $291 million in milestones baked in.

Vas Narasimhan, AP Images

On a hot streak, No­var­tis ex­ecs run the odds on their two most im­por­tant PhI­II read­outs. Which is 0.01% more like­ly to suc­ceed?

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan is living in the sweet spot right now.

The numbers are running a bit better than expected, the pipeline — which he assembled as development chief — is performing and the stock popped more than 4% on Thursday as the executive team ran through their assessment of Q2 performance.

Year-to-date the stock is up 28%, so the investors will be beaming. Anyone looking for chinks in their armor — and there are plenty giving it a shot — right now focus on payer acceptance of their $2.1 million gene therapy Zolgensma, where it’s early days. And CAR-T continues to underperform, but Novartis doesn’t appear to be suffering from it.

So what could go wrong?

Actually, not much. But Tim Anderson at Wolfe pressed Narasimhan and his development chief John Tsai to pick which of two looming Phase III readouts with blockbuster implication had the better odds of success.

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H1 analy­sis: The high-stakes ta­ble in the biotech deals casi­no is pay­ing out some record-set­ting win­nings

For years the big trend among dealmakers at the major players has been centered on ratcheting down upfront payments in favor of bigger milestones. Better known as biobucks for some. But with the top 15 companies competing for the kind of “transformative” pacts that can whip up some excitement on Wall Street, with some big biotechs like Regeneron now weighing in as well, cash is king at the high stakes table.

We asked Chris Dokomajilar, the head of DealForma, to crunch the numbers for us, looking over the top 20 deals for the past decade and breaking it all down into the top alliances already created in 2019. Gilead has clearly tipped the scales in terms of the coin of the bio-realm, with its record-setting $5 billion upfront to tie up to Galapagos’ entire pipeline.

Dokomajilar notes:

We’re going to need a ‘three comma club’ for the deals with over $1 billion in total upfront cash and equity. The $100 million-plus club is getting crowded at 164 deals in the last decade with new deals being added towards the top of the chart. 2019 already has 14 deals with at least $100 million in upfront cash and equity for a total year-to-date of over $9 billion. That beats last year’s $8 billion and sets a record.

Add upfronts and equity payments and you get $11.5 billion for the year, just shy of last year’s record-setting $11.8 billion.

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