Can a new pro­tein bring RNA drugs where they can't reach? J&J vet Sue Dil­lon's Io­n­is-part­nered biotech gets $88M to prove yes

Sue Dil­lon re­mem­bers the un­cer­tain­ty when she first left J&J to start her own biotech around a new kind of mol­e­cules called cen­tyrins.

Sue Dil­lon

J&J had al­ready li­censed the tech, which was de­vel­oped by her co-founder Karyn O’Neil at the phar­ma gi­ant’s Cen­tyrex unit, to two com­pa­nies for use in CAR-T and ra­dio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals. But Aro Bio­ther­a­peu­tics want­ed to ap­ply it to what was still a nascent area: RNA med­i­cines, en­com­pass­ing both an­ti­sense oligonu­cleotides and siR­NA ther­a­pies.

“There was a lot of skep­ti­cism out there around whether or not oligonu­cleotides would be­come a sig­nif­i­cant drug plat­form,” she told End­points News. “I don’t think any­body doubts that now.”

For all the progress, though, the need that the duo saw re­mains. Out­side the liv­er and cer­tain dis­eases primed for lo­cal de­liv­ery, drug­mak­ers have had trou­ble de­liv­er­ing these drugs to oth­er tis­sues. Aro’s pro­posed so­lu­tion was promis­ing and per­ti­nent enough that af­ter J&J pro­vid­ed the ini­tial $13 mil­lion to get things off the ground, Io­n­is, a gi­ant in the an­ti­sense nu­cleotide field, signed up for a dis­cov­ery pact at the be­gin­ning of 2020.

One year lat­er, Dil­lon and O’Neil are ready to steer their own can­di­dates to­ward the clin­ic, armed with $88 mil­lion in Se­ries A fund­ing pro­vid­ed by the ex­ist­ing in­vestors at John­son & John­son In­no­va­tion – JJDC, Io­n­is and Bio­Mo­tiv, as well as new back­ers led by North­pond Ven­tures and Cowen Health­care (the oth­ers are Health­Cap, BVF Part­ners and Ridge­back Cap­i­tal).

If the con­cept checks out — and Aro is lean­ing on some se­ri­ous proof-of-con­cept from O’Neil’s J&J days that it would — it promis­es to change not just an­ti­sense but a slew of ge­net­ic med­i­cines that are re­shap­ing the de­f­i­n­i­tion of a drug.

Cen­tyrins, Dil­lon ex­plained, are mod­eled on a hu­man pro­tein from the fi­bronectin fam­i­ly that vague­ly re­sem­bles an anti­gen bind­ing do­main of a very large an­ti­body. They are small (just one-fif­teenth the size of an an­ti­body) but bind to cell sur­face re­cep­tors with high affin­i­ty, and they can be eas­i­ly man­u­fac­tured in E. coli in the lab.

Karyn O’Neil

Not on­ly has O’Neil fig­ured out a way to con­ju­gate them to RNA mol­e­cules, her team can al­so cre­ate bis­pe­cif­ic or mul­ti­spe­cif­ic cen­tyrins to se­lect for cer­tain cells that have all the re­cep­tors.

The com­pa­ny isn’t say­ing much about the pipeline oth­er than that the ini­tial pro­grams will tar­get mus­cle dis­eases and im­munol­o­gy — Dil­lon’s ex­pert area at J&J — and range from the rare, or­phan dis­or­der to more com­mon ail­ments. As is com­mon for an ear­ly-stage ven­ture, the CEO al­so re­frained from com­mit­ting to a time­line for en­ter­ing the clin­ic but not­ed the fund­ing should last them two to three years.

In par­al­lel with the lead pro­grams, the team of 20 is al­so ex­plor­ing ways to sys­tem­i­cal­ly de­liv­er mR­NA, DNA or CRISPR/Cas ma­chin­ery — any­thing that’s wrapped in nanopar­ti­cles — to tar­get tis­sues.

“I think that the biggest sin­gle thing over the last 3 years is the emer­gence of broad­ly ge­net­ic med­i­cines as the ma­jor class of med­i­cines for the fu­ture, and along with that, the recog­ni­tion that a ma­jor chal­lenge fac­ing the en­tire field of any of those types of med­i­cines is the chal­lenge of tis­sue spe­cif­ic de­liv­ery,” Dil­lon said. “That’s where Aro comes in. And that’s why I be­lieve even more than I did in 2018 when we first start­ed the com­pa­ny that there is just enor­mous po­ten­tial here for us to re­al­ly make a dif­fer­ence.”

Biotech and Big Phar­ma: A blue­print for a suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship

Strategic partnerships have long been an important contributor to how drugs are discovered and developed. For decades, big pharma companies have been forming alliances with biotech innovators to increase R&D productivity, expand geographical reach and better manage late-stage commercialization costs.

Noël Brown, Managing Director and Head of Biotechnology Investment Banking, and Greg Wiederrecht, Ph.D., Managing Director in the Global Healthcare Investment Banking Group at RBC Capital Markets, are no strangers to the importance of these tie-ups. Noël has over 20 years of investment banking experience in the industry. Before moving to the banking world in 2015, Greg was the Vice President and Head of External Scientific Affairs (ESA) at Merck, where he was responsible for the scientific assessment of strategic partnership opportunities worldwide.

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How Chi­na turned the ta­bles on bio­phar­ma's glob­al deal­mak­ing

Fenlai Tan still gets chills thinking about the darkest day of his life.

Three out of eight lung cancer patients who received a tyrosine kinase inhibitor developed by his company, Betta Pharma, died in the span of a month. Tan, the chief medical officer, was summoned to Peking Union Medical College Hospital, where the head of the clinical trial department told him that the trial investigators would be conducting an autopsy to see if the patients had died of the disease — they were all very sick by the time they enrolled — or of interstitial lung disease, a deadly side effect tied to the TKI class that’s been reported in Japan.

Peter Nell, Mammoth Biosciences CBO

UP­DAT­ED: Jen­nifer Doud­na spin­out inks a Mam­moth CRISPR deal with Ver­tex worth near­ly $700M

When a company gets its start in gene editing pioneer Jennifer Doudna’s lab, it’s bound to make headlines. But three years in, the fanfare still hasn’t died down for Mammoth Biosciences. Now, the Brisbane, CA-based company is cheering on its first major R&D pact.

Mammoth unveiled a nearly $700 million deal with Vertex on Tuesday morning, good for the development of in vivo gene therapies for two mystery diseases. The stars of the show are Mammoth’s ultra-small CRISPR systems, including two Cas enzymes licensed from Doudna’s lab over the past couple years, Cas14 and Casɸ.

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James Peyer, Cambrian CEO

Brent Saun­ders joins $100M Se­ries C for a com­pa­ny out to be the Bridge­Bio of ag­ing

About a year ago, James Peyer, a CEO and co-founder of the little known longevity biotech Cambrian Biopharma, was trying to find some R&D talent last year when he met with more than a bit of experience in that department: David Nicholson, the former R&D chief of the erstwhile pharma giant Allergan.

It turned out Nicholson already had an interest in Peyer’s field. In their Allergan days, he and COO Brent Saunders held weekly meetups where they tried to figure out how to take the company’s dominance in aesthetics — which, until recently, was often what people meant by anti-aging science — and expertise with more traditional drug development, and use it to make drugs that extend people’s lifespan.

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An­gion's or­gan dam­age drug strikes out again, this time in high-risk kid­ney trans­plant pa­tients

After flopping a test in Covid-19 earlier this year, Angion’s lead organ damage drug has now hit the skids again in kidney transplant patients.

Angion and partner Vifor Pharma’s ANG-3777 failed to beat out placebo in terms of improving eGFR, a measure of kidney function, in patients who had received a deceased donor kidney transplant and were at high risk of developing what is known as delayed graft function, according to Phase III results released Tuesday.

(Photo courtesy Pfizer)

FDA's vac­cine ad­comm votes al­most unan­i­mous­ly in fa­vor of Pfiz­er's Covid-19 vac­cine for younger chil­dren

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee on Tuesday voted 17-0, with one panelist abstaining, that the benefits of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine outweigh the risks for children between the ages of five and 12.

The vote will likely trigger a process that could allow the shots to begin rolling out as early as next week.

The vaccine, which is one-third of the adult Pfizer dose, proved to be about 90% effective in a placebo-controlled trial in which about 1,500 kids in this age range received the vaccine, and only about 12% of those receiving the vaccine had any adverse event. All serious adverse events in the trial were unrelated to the vaccine.

Stéphane Bancel, Moderna CEO (Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

Mod­er­na chips in fur­ther on African vac­cine sup­ply — but ad­vo­cates are call­ing for even more

In a sign of its growing commitment to the continent, Moderna will supply up to 110 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine to the African Union, the company announced Tuesday. And CEO Stéphane Bancel said it’s just the first step.

“We believe our vaccine can play an important role in addressing the needs of low-income countries given its combination of high Phase 3 efficacy against COVID-19, strong durability in the real-world evidence, and superior storage and handling conditions. We recognize that access to COVID-19 vaccines continues to be a challenge in many parts of the world and we remain committed to helping to protect as many people as possible around the globe,” Bancel said in a statement.

An image of Alzheimer's brain tissue. The red show gingipains, a protein from P. gingivalis, intermixing with neurons (yellow) and glial cells (green)

An Alzheimer's dark­horse fails its first big tri­al, but of­fers hope for a long-over­looked hy­poth­e­sis

Three years ago, Cortexyme emerged out of obscurity with some big-name backers and an unorthodox approach to treating Alzheimer’s.

They moved their drug into a pivotal study the next year, offering one of the first major tests for a hypothesis that has fluttered on the outskirts of Alzheimer’s research for decades: that, in many cases, the disease is driven by infectious agents — the havoc they wreak in the brain and the inflammation the body uses to try to fend them off. And that quashing the infection could slow patients’ cognitive decline.

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Ugur Sahin, AP Images

As pres­sure to share tech­nol­o­gy mounts, BioN­Tech se­lects Rwan­da for lat­est vac­cine site

BioNTech’s first mRNA-based vaccine site in Africa will call Rwanda home, and construction is set to start in mid-2022, the company announced Tuesday at a public health forum.

The German company signed a memorandum of understanding, after a meeting between Rwanda’s Minister of Health, Daniel Ngamije, Senegal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Aïssata Tall Sall, and senior BioNTech officials. Construction plans have been finalized, and assets have been ordered. The agreement will help bring end-to-end manufacturing to Africa, and as many as several hundred million doses of vaccines per year, though initial production will be more modest.