Black Di­a­mond turns down an open stretch of R&D high­way, head­ed to a show­down with onco­genes

As one of the lead sci­en­tists in­volved in the de­vel­op­ment of Tarce­va, David Ep­stein had plen­ty of op­por­tu­ni­ty to con­sid­er the many ways in which can­cer can evade a drug and kill pa­tients.

David Ep­stein

For the last 4 years, Ep­stein has been qui­et­ly work­ing away at the prob­lem, and he’s tak­en a turn down a stretch of R&D high­way which he be­lieves can lead to a full pipeline of new can­cer drugs that can broach that is­sue for par­tic­u­lar sub­sets of pa­tients. 

Ep­stein and co-founder Eliz­a­beth Buck have been build­ing a com­pa­ny — called Black Di­a­mond — based in New York but work­ing with Ver­sant’s Ridge­line dis­cov­ery en­gine in Basel. And from to­day, they’re plan­ning to start mak­ing some noise about the work they are do­ing.

Ver­sant hand­ed over a $20 mil­lion A round to fire up the work last year, giv­ing Ep­stein a chance to grow the crew to 15 or so. And they’re work­ing on a sec­ond round now that is de­signed to get them down the road to the clin­ic, with plans to build the team to the 40-50 range.

Jump­ing past the ki­nase do­main in­hibitors — TKIs —that have been used to counter the work of can­cer-dri­ving onco­genes, Black Di­a­mond has its eye pri­mar­i­ly on al­losteric mu­ta­tions. 

Find the right al­losteric onco­genes dri­ving can­cer, they say, and you can de­vel­op in­hibitors for them that work across tu­mor types.

“We have two pro­grams,” says Ep­stein, “al­losteric HER2 and EGFR dri­ver mu­ta­tions that oc­cur across a range of tis­sue type tu­mors, so we can be tis­sue ag­nos­tic.”

The big idea at Black Di­a­mond is that there are “whole sets of onco­genic le­sions out­side the ATP bind­ing site that are ac­ti­vat­ed by com­mon mech­a­nisms and are in­hib­it­ed by a sin­gle class of our drugs,” says the CEO. “Our plat­form gen­er­ates sin­gle mol­e­cules able to treat en­tire bas­kets of mu­ta­tions that oth­er­wise would have been deemed un­ac­tion­able.”

Alex May­weg

“This was a phe­nom­e­nal idea of pre­ci­sion med­i­cine,” says Ver­sant part­ner Alex May­weg, who’s hap­py to play a big role in as­sist­ing the cre­ation of Black Di­a­mond.

By this time next year, Ep­stein plans to have the B round in the bank and the first of their pro­grams in the clin­ic, with the sec­ond to fol­low in 2020.

A lot of their work re­lies on the spread­ing use of se­quenc­ing to al­low for per­son­al­ized ther­a­py. 

“This will take the un­ac­tion­able and make it ac­tion­able,” says Ep­stein. “We think this is a po­ten­tial huge ap­pli­ca­tion.”

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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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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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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On a glob­al romp, Boehringer BD team picks up its third R&D al­liance for Ju­ly — this time fo­cused on IPF with $50M up­front

Boehringer Ingelheim’s BD team is on a global deal spree. The German pharma company just wrapped its third deal in 3 weeks, going back to Korea for its latest pipeline pact — this time focused on idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

They’re handing over $50 million to get their hands on BBT-877, an ATX inhibitor from Korea’s Bridge Biotherapeutics that was on display at a science conference in Dallas recently. There’s not a whole lot of data to evaluate the prospects here.

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Servi­er scoots out of an­oth­er col­lab­o­ra­tion with Macro­Gen­ics, writ­ing off their $40M

Servier is walking out on a partnership with MacroGenics $MGNX — for the second time.

After the market closed on Wednesday MacroGenics put out word that Servier is severing a deal — inked close to 7 years ago — to collaborate on the development of flotetuzumab and other Dual-Affinity Re-Targeting (DART) drugs in its pipeline.

MacroGenics CEO Scott Koenig shrugged off the departure of Servier, which paid $20 million to kick off the alliance and $20 million to option flotetuzumab — putting a heavily back-ended $1 billion-plus in additional biobuck money on the table for the anti-CD123/CD3 bispecific and its companion therapies.