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.

Why it Works: Man­u­fac­tur­ing a Vac­cine in a Mul­ti-Prod­uct Fa­cil­i­ty.

COVID-19 launched the pharmaceutical industry to the frontline in the battle against the fast-spreading global pandemic. The goal: distribute a safe, effective vaccine as quickly as possible. Major players in the vaccine market needed to partner with contract development and manufacturing organizations (CDMOs) to achieve the goal of mass vaccine quantities under expedited timelines. With CDMOs stepping up to play a critical role in the vaccine manufacturing process, multi-product CDMO facilities took the spotlight. Partnerships quickly formed as the race to save lives and fight a pandemic was on.

Habib Dable, Acceleron CEO

Days of heat­ed ru­mors cul­mi­nate in a re­port that Ac­celeron is in ad­vanced buy­out talks

Days of frothy rumors about possible M&A discussions at Acceleron were capped late Friday with a Bloomberg report asserting that the biotech company is in advanced talks for an $11 billion buyout deal.

Bloomberg was unable to identify any bidders in the deal, but speculation has been running rampant that the surging value of Acceleron stock had to be the result of leaks around the auction of the company. As of early Monday morning, we’re still awaiting the final word.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 118,600+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Safe­ty fears force Pfiz­er to change piv­otal DMD gene ther­a­py tri­al pro­to­col

As one of the biggest players in an increasingly packed gene therapy space, Pfizer has taken an early lead over specialists like Sarepta in taking a Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) candidate into late-stage testing. But new safety fears have led Pfizer to scale back that trial, cutting out patients with certain genetic mutations.

Pfizer has amended its enrollment protocol for a Phase III test for gene therapy fordadistrogene movaparvovec in DMD after investigators flagged severe side effects tied to specific mutations, according to a letter the drugmaker sent to Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, a patient advocacy group.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 118,600+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Merck CEO Rob Davis

Mer­ck emerges as lead bid­der in po­ten­tial Ac­celeron buy­out with deal pos­si­ble this week — re­port

With rumors swirling about a potential buyout of biotech Acceleron and its lead PAH drug sotatercept, market watchers have been keeping close tabs on industry movers and shakers due up for an expensive bolt-on. According to a new report, it appears Merck may be the one.

Merck is in “advanced talks” on a deal to acquire Cambridge, MA-based Acceleron in what previous reports pegged as a potential $11 billion buyout, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. A deal could come as early as this week, according to the Journal.

Alexander Lefterov/Endpoints News

The coro­n­avirus vac­cine that the world for­got could still help save it

Back at the beginning of the pandemic — back when we still called the virus “novel” and a single case in Washington state could make headlines — there emerged the story of the coronavirus vaccine that the world forgot.

It was an allegory for our pandemic ill-preparedness. At a time when the world had been caught so flat-footed, there were a pair of scientists who had seen the crisis coming, lab-coated Cassandras with an antidote if only the world had listened sooner.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Paul Hudson, Sanofi CEO (Cyril Marcilhacy/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Sanofi calls it quits on mR­NA Covid-19 shots, scrap­ping vac­cine from $3.2B Trans­late Bio buy­out

Sanofi is throwing in the towel on mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines.

The French drugmaker will halt development on its unmodified mRNA Covid-19 shot despite what it said were positive Phase I/II results, a spokesperson told Endpoints News on Tuesday morning. Sanofi said the reason it’s stopping the Covid-19 mRNA program, developed in partnership with its new $3.2 billion acquisition Translate Bio, is because the market is too crowded.

Brian Hubbard, Anji Pharmacetuticals CEO

Look­ing to rewrite the rules of drug li­cens­ing, start­up An­ji is on the hunt for 'dy­nam­ic eq­ui­ty' joint ven­tures

Licensing is one of the most common ways big drugmakers leverage biotech innovation to drive gains across their pipelines — and the structure of those deals is pretty well established. But one biotech with home bases in China and the US thinks it may have a better way.

On Tuesday, Cambridge-based biotech Anji Pharma closed a $70 million Series B with two late-stage molecules in the fold and a mission to rewrite the rules of drug licensing through what it calls “dynamic equity” deals and a joint venture-heavy game plan. The round was funded in whole by Chinese hedge fund CR Capital.

Con­tract re­search is hav­ing a mo­ment right now. Will M&A splash­es dri­ve the in­dus­try to even greater heights?

Contract research organizations are a fairly mysterious bunch. They’re typically considered the skilled laborers behind big drug development — the stage crews who run the trials behind some of the most (and least) successful data reveals in biopharma history.

But all that is changing.

This year, a couple of huge, out-of-the-blue M&A deals sounded the alarm on just how much money is flying around in this corner of the industry.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO (John Thys, Pool via AP Images)

Covid-19 roundup: Pfiz­er/BioN­Tech sub­mit vac­cine da­ta to FDA for younger chil­dren; Doc­tors kept pre­scrib­ing hy­drox­y­chloro­quine

Pfizer and BioNTech said Tuesday they submitted to FDA positive data from a Phase II/III trial of their Covid-19 vaccine in children aged 5 to less than 12 years old.

A formal EUA submission for the vaccine in these children is expected to follow “in the coming weeks,” the companies said in a statement.

The trial of 2,268 healthy participants aged 5 to less than 12 years old showed the vaccine was safe and elicited robust neutralizing antibody responses using a two-dose regimen of 10 μg doses, which is one-third the dose that’s administered to adults.