Feng Zhang, MIT

Broad star Feng Zhang un­veils a new CRISPR plat­form, edit­ing RNA and elim­i­nat­ing Alzheimer's threat — in cells

Broad In­sti­tute star sci­en­tist Feng Zhang is back in the spot­light, adapt­ing CRISPR tech­nol­o­gy in a shift from per­ma­nent­ly edit­ing DNA to re­vis­ing RNA — tem­porar­i­ly if need­ed. And he il­lus­trat­ed the promise of this ap­proach by de­ac­ti­vat­ing APOE4, which may be a tick­ing time bomb for peo­ple at risk of de­vel­op­ing Alzheimer’s.

Jen­nifer Doud­na

CRISPR/Cas9 gene edit­ing tech has tak­en the lab by storm, in part be­cause of the work Zhang and his one-time col­leagues Jen­nifer Doud­na and Em­manuelle Char­p­en­tier ac­com­plished. They’re still scrap­ping over the patents to the orig­i­nal Cas9 work. But Zhang, who found­ed Beam Ther­a­peu­tics with David Liu and Kei­th Joung, has moved on in search of bet­ter tech, and in a pa­per pub­lished in Sci­ence, says they have made re­al progress in switch­ing from DNA to RNA edit­ing.

They call this new ad­vance RES­CUE: RNA Edit­ing for Spe­cif­ic C to U Ex­change. And it builds on RE­PAIR: RNA Edit­ing for Pro­gram­ma­ble A to I.

Us­ing Cas13, Zhang’s team was able to take the APOE4 gene — be­lieved to car­ry the added risk of spurring Alzheimer’s — and changed it to a be­nign APOE2. The RNA ed­i­tors con­vert­ed “the nu­cleotide base ade­nine to in­o­sine, or let­ters A to I. Zhang and col­leagues took the RE­PAIR fu­sion and evolved it in the lab un­til it could change cy­to­sine to uri­dine, or C to U.”

But there are al­so ways to achieve a tem­po­rary change that could ben­e­fit pa­tients with­out cre­at­ing po­ten­tial risks.

Em­manuelle Char­p­en­tier

In a sep­a­rate cell ex­per­i­ment, Zhang and his group were able to or­ches­trate a tran­si­to­ry spike in β-catenin ac­ti­va­tion and cell growth. That kind of tem­po­rary im­pact could erase threats of can­cer, as­so­ci­at­ed with un­con­trolled cell growth while treat­ing wounds.

“To treat the di­ver­si­ty of ge­net­ic changes that cause dis­ease, we need an ar­ray of pre­cise tech­nolo­gies to choose from. By de­vel­op­ing this new en­zyme and com­bin­ing it with the pro­gram­ma­bil­i­ty and pre­ci­sion of CRISPR, we were able to fill a crit­i­cal gap in the tool­box,” says Zhang, the James and Pa­tri­cia Poitras Pro­fes­sor of Neu­ro­science at MIT.

It’s an in­trigu­ing ex­per­i­ment, but don’t look for the ex­per­i­ment in cells to make the leap in­to prac­tice any­time soon. MIT’s Jonathan Gooten­berg summed it up for WBUR:

“It’s a first step in a very large jour­ney. We’re still at the base of the moun­tain, you might say.”

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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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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Part club, part guide, part land­lord: Arie Bellde­grun is blue­print­ing a string of be­spoke biotech com­plex­es in glob­al boom­towns — start­ing with Boston

The biotech industry is getting a landlord, unlike anything it’s ever known before.

Inspired by his recent experiences scrounging for space in Boston and the Bay Area, master biotech builder, investor, and global dealmaker Arie Belldegrun has organized a new venture to build a new, 250,000 square foot biopharma building in Boston’s Seaport district — home to Vertex and a number of up-and-coming biotech players.

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