Can B cells break the bound­aries of cell ther­a­py? Long­wood start­up has $52M to prove a new en­gi­neer­ing tech

Back in De­cem­ber 2017, as the cell ther­a­py world was still bask­ing in the vir­tu­al­ly back-to-back ap­provals of two pi­o­neer­ing CAR-Ts, re­searchers at Seat­tle Chil­dren’s Re­search In­sti­tute re­port­ed a sci­en­tif­ic first in a dif­fer­ent cor­ner of the field: en­gi­neer B cells to treat dis­ease.

Aleks Radovic-Moreno

The team, led by David Rawl­ings and Richard James, even­tu­al­ly worked with Long­wood Fund to start a biotech around those find­ings. And now At­las Ven­ture and RA Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment are com­ing on board to lead a $52 mil­lion launch round, joined by Al­ta Part­ners, for Be Bio­phar­ma.

“B cells have been such an at­trac­tive cell type,” Aleks Radovic-Moreno, an en­tre­pre­neur-in-res­i­dence who co-found­ed the biotech, told End­points News. “It just wasn’t their time yet. But now we feel con­fi­dent that it’s their time to step in­to the lime­light.”

The two clas­sic stum­bling blocks, he added, are fig­ur­ing out how to en­gi­neer them ef­fi­cient­ly and cul­ture them in suf­fi­cient quan­ti­ties.

David Rawl­ings

But once Rawl­ings and James cracked the code through ho­mol­o­gy-di­rect­ed re­pair, it opened up po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions be­yond what cur­rent cell ther­a­pies can do. While T cells are de­signed to kill cells marked by cer­tain anti­gens, B cells’ unique func­tion is that they make “un­be­liev­able quan­ti­ties of pro­teins” — from an­ti­bod­ies to im­mune mod­u­lat­ing fac­tors.

You can al­so pro­gram a B cell to go to a spe­cif­ic tis­sue, with­out the need for con­di­tion­ing or lym­phode­ple­tion, while re­tain­ing an op­tion to titrate and re­dose if you don’t get it right the first time.

“If you think about what dis­ease you want where you want a pro­tein to be se­cret­ed in a tar­get­ed fash­ion, that’s ac­tu­al­ly a re­al­ly big list,” Radovic-Moreno said, list­ing can­cer, au­toim­mune dis­eases, mono­genic dis­or­ders and in­fec­tious dis­eases as ar­eas be­ing ex­plored.

Richard James

In a pre­vi­ous in­ter­view, James al­so gave he­mo­phil­ia B as an ex­am­ple of a pro­tein de­fi­cien­cy dis­ease where a B cell ther­a­py can po­ten­tial­ly cure pa­tients.

Be Bio ben­e­fits from the trail that hun­dreds of T cell ther­a­py play­ers have now trav­eled, step­ping in­to a world where lo­gis­tics, ge­net­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tion and cell pu­rifi­ca­tion tools are read­i­ly avail­able. But its core area of ex­per­tise — map­ping out the bi­ol­o­gy of B cells and ma­nip­u­lat­ing them — re­mains one that’s on­ly hous­ing aca­d­e­m­ic groups so far.

David Stein­berg

Cur­rent­ly man­aged by an in­ter­im team con­sist­ing of Radovic-Moreno as pres­i­dent and David Stein­berg as CEO, the team is grow­ing every week at the Alexan­dria Launch­Labs in Kendall Square. In ad­di­tion to the sci­en­tif­ic founders, it’s al­so guid­ed by an il­lus­tri­ous sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­so­ry board, con­sist­ing of Frances Eun-Hyung Lee, an asth­ma ex­pert at Emory, as well as Har­vard’s Shiv Pil­lai and UCSF’s Ja­son Cys­ter, who bring years of ex­pe­ri­ence study­ing B cells.

He may not be ready to dis­cuss con­crete drug tar­gets or time­lines yet, but for Radovic-Moreno, who played a lead­ing role in get­ting Sid­dhartha Mukher­jee’s en­gi­neered hematopoi­et­ic stem cells off the ground at Vor Bio, it’s all rem­i­nis­cent of the ear­ly days of T cell work.

“I wouldn’t be sur­prised if we see a sim­i­lar tra­jec­to­ry 5 years from to­day,” he said. “I don’t think there will be hun­dreds of B cell com­pa­nies, but I’m gonna bet it’s more than one.”

Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos (via Getty Images)

With ad­u­canum­ab caught on a cliff, Bio­gen’s Michel Vounatsos bets bil­lions on an­oth­er high-risk neu­ro play

With its FDA pitch on the Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab hanging perilously close to disaster, Biogen is rolling the dice on a $3.1 billion deal that brings in commercial rights to one of the other spotlight neuro drugs in late-stage development — after it already failed its first Phase III.

The big biotech has turned to Sage Therapeutics for its latest deal, close to a year after the crushing failure of Sage-217, now dubbed zuranolone, in the MOUNTAIN study.

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Bob Nelsen (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images)

Bob Nelsen rais­es $800M and re­cruits a star-stud­ded board to build the 'Fox­con­n' of biotech

Bob Nelsen spent his pandemic spring in his Seattle home, talking on the phone with Luciana Borio, the scientist who used to run pandemic preparedness on the National Security Council, and fuming with her about the dire state of American manufacturing.

Companies were rushing to develop vaccines and antibodies for the new virus, but even if they succeeded, there was no immediate supply chain or infrastructure to mass-produce them in a way that could make a dent in the outbreak.

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Jason Kelly, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter Ko­dak de­ba­cle, US lends $1.1B to a syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy com­pa­ny and their big Covid-19, mR­NA plans

In mid-August, as Kodak’s $765 million government-backed push into drug manufacturing slowly fell apart in national headlines, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO Jason Kelly got a message from his company’s government liaison: HHS wanted to know if they, too, might want a loan.

The government’s decision to lend Kodak three quarters of a billion dollars raised eyebrows because Kodak had never made drugs before. But Ginkgo, while not a manufacturing company, had spent the last decade refining new ways to produce materials inside cells and building automated facilities across Boston.

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Feng Tian, Ambrx CEO (Ambrx)

Af­ter 5 qui­et years, a for­mer Scripps spin­out rais­es $200M and an­nounces plans to try again at an IPO

The first time San Diego biotech Ambrx tried to go public in 2014, they failed and the company’s board switched to a radically different strategy: They sold themselves for an undisclosed amount to a syndicate of Chinese investors and pharma companies.

Now, after 5 quiet years, that syndicate has raised a mountain of cash and indicated they’ll soon make another bid to go public.

Earlier this month, Ambrx raised $200 million in what they billed as a crossover round financed by Fidelity, BlackRock, Cormorant Asset Management, HBM Healthcare Investments, Invus, Adage Capital Partners and Suvretta Capital Management. It’s the largest amount they’ve ever raised and, according to Crunchbase figures, more than doubles the total amount of VC capital collected since their launch 17 years ago.

Michelle Longmire, Medable CEO (Jeff Rumans)

Med­able gets $91M for vir­tu­al clin­i­cal tri­als, bring­ing to­tal raise to $136M

As biotechs look to get clinical studies back on track amid the pandemic, Medable returned to the venture well for the second time this year, bagging a $91 million Series C to build out its virtual trial platform.

The software provider recently launched three new apps for decentralizing clinical trials, and saw a 500% revenue spike this year. And it isn’t alone. Back in August, Science 37 secured a $40 million round for its virtual trial tech, with support from Novartis, Sanofi Ventures and Amgen. Patients and researchers are taking a liking to the online approach, suggesting regulators could allow it to become a new normal even after the pandemic is over.

The ad­u­canum­ab co­nun­drum: The PhI­II failed a clear reg­u­la­to­ry stan­dard, but no one is cer­tain what that means any­more at the FDA

Eighteen days ago, virtually all of the outside experts on an FDA adcomm got together to mug the agency’s Billy Dunn and the Biogen team when they presented their upbeat assessment on aducanumab. But here we are, more than 2 weeks later, and the ongoing debate over that Alzheimer’s drug’s fate continues unabated.

Instead of simply ruling out any chance of an approval, the logical conclusion based on what we heard during that session, a series of questionable approvals that preceded the controversy over the agency’s recent EUA decisions has come back to haunt the FDA, where the power of precedent is leaving an opening some experts believe can still be exploited by the big biotech.

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Vipin Suri, Catamaran Bio CSO

Cata­ma­ran Bio sails in­to the CAR-NK wa­ters with a $42M launch round

Catamaran Bio’s founding members decided to jump into the CAR-NK game last December over drinks at a trendy bar in Boston.

They were sitting around a table, discussing an MD Anderson study which provided some of the first clinical proof that natural killer (NK) cells can be reengineered to attack tumors, much like CAR-T therapies. It was a “long and lively” discussion, COO Mark Boshar recalls. And by the time it was over, they had a starting point to launch a company.

John Maraganore, Alnylam CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Al­ny­lam gets the green light from the FDA for drug #3 — and CEO John Maraganore is ready to roll

Score another early win at the FDA for Alnylam.

The FDA put out word today that the agency has approved its third drug, lumasiran, for primary hyperoxaluria type 1, better known as PH1. The news comes just 4 days after the European Commission took the lead in offering a green light.

An ultra rare genetic condition, Alnylam CEO John Maraganore says there are only some 1,000 to 1,700 patients in the US and Europe at any particular point. The patients, mostly kids, suffer from an overproduction of oxalate in the liver that spurs the development of kidney stones, right through to end stage kidney disease.

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Peter Thiel (Riccardo Savi/Sipa via AP Images)

Tech bil­lion­aire Pe­ter Thiel backs a lead­ing psy­che­del­ic drug de­vel­op­er

Right on the heels of investing in antibody drug developer AbCellera, Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel has jumped into a syndicate putting up $125 million for a company with a portfolio of psychedelic drugs in the clinic for mental health.

The C round — which includes a $32 million conversion of notes to equity — will fuel the development programs at ATAI Life Sciences, a Berlin-based biotech that has assembled a portfolio of companies with psychedelic and non-psychedilc approaches to depression, anxiety and addiction.

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