Henry Klassen (UC Irvine via YouTube)

Can prog­en­i­tor cells go fur­ther than gene ther­a­py in reti­nal dis­or­ders? A biotech's an­swer shines in PhI­Ib

By the time the FDA ap­proved Lux­tur­na — the pi­o­neer­ing gene ther­a­py for an in­her­it­ed reti­nal dis­ease — Hen­ry Klassen had been re­search­ing and treat­ing the group of dis­eases known as re­tini­tis pig­men­tosa for more than 20 years.

Spark Ther­a­peu­tics’ suc­cess there had not just in­spired a $4.3 bil­lion takeover by Roche, it had al­so em­bold­ened oth­er biotechs pur­su­ing a ther­a­py that would de­liv­er one of the genes tied to dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions of the dis­or­der. Night­star Ther­a­peu­tics sub­se­quent­ly scored its own buy­out with Bio­gen, and MeiraGTx re­cent­ly post­ed ear­ly but “ex­cit­ing da­ta” on its J&J-part­nered pro­gram.

But Klassen went a dif­fer­ent way.

Catch­ing on the stem cell craze right at the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, he took in­spi­ra­tion from sci­en­tists who trans­plant­ed neur­al prog­en­i­tor cells in­to the reti­na and de­vel­oped a method to grow reti­nal prog­en­i­tor cells in­stead as a ther­a­py. Start­ing out as the di­rec­tor of stem cell re­search at the Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal of Or­ange Coun­ty, he con­tin­ued the work at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine, even­tu­al­ly spin­ning out a biotech dubbed jCyte in 2012.

Paul Bres­ge

Over the week­end jCyte re­port­ed pos­i­tive Phase IIb re­sults from what they call one of the largest stud­ies ever con­duct­ed in RP, sug­gest­ing that pa­tients on the treat­ment saw im­proved func­tion­al vi­sion com­pared to the place­bo group.

“The cred­it to the gene ther­a­pies is that they’re ac­tive­ly try­ing to fix the gene un­der­ly­ing the prob­lem. That’s very com­mend­able, and we’re not do­ing that,” Klassen told End­points News. “But our treat­ment as it stands should have im­pact across a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent geno­types.”

The study en­rolled a to­tal of 84 pa­tients, of whom 74 were in­clud­ed for the fi­nal analy­sis. For each pa­tient on the pri­ma­ry end­point of best cor­rect­ed vi­su­al acu­ity (mea­sured with glass­es on), the mean change from base­line to month 12 for the sham, low dose and high dose arms were +2.81, +2.96, and +7.43 let­ters, re­spec­tive­ly.

In a post hoc analy­sis for a tar­get sub­group, the dif­fer­ence was even more promi­nent: +1.85, -0.15, and +16.27 let­ters, re­spec­tive­ly.

There was one se­ri­ous ad­verse event in the low dose arm, but jCyte said the grade 3 oc­u­lar hy­per­ten­sion re­solved with treat­ment and oth­er side ef­fects were gen­er­al­ly mi­nor.

CEO Paul Bres­ge not­ed that the tar­get sub­group analy­sis was in­tend­ed to ham­mer out the cri­te­ria they might use to re­cruit pa­tients in­to Phase III — which would like­ly have a sim­i­lar de­sign and use the same pri­ma­ry end­point of BC­VA, the “gold stan­dard in the con­text of FDA.” The late-stage tri­al is slat­ed for 2021.

“We did en­roll a very wide pa­tient pop­u­la­tion in­to our Phase IIb, in­clud­ing pa­tients that had vi­sion any­where from 20/80 to 20/800, just to learn which pa­tients would po­ten­tial­ly be the best re­spon­ders,” he said.

The tar­get sub­group is char­ac­ter­ized by hav­ing re­li­able fix­a­tion on the study eye, and a study eye that does not have sig­nif­i­cant­ly worse BC­VA (≤15 let­ters) than the fel­low eye.

He added that in­ves­ti­ga­tors al­so ob­served en­cour­ag­ing re­sults with the sec­ondary end­points such as low light mo­bil­i­ty, con­trast sen­si­tiv­i­ty ki­net­ic vi­su­al fields and a vi­sion func­tion ques­tion­naire, al­though the da­ta weren’t dis­closed.

“Typ­i­cal­ly peo­ple think about the dis­ease as a nar­row­ing of this pe­riph­er­al vi­sion in a very nice gran­u­lar way, but that’s ac­tu­al­ly not what hap­pens,” he said about the vi­su­al fields find­ing. “What hap­pens in the dis­ease is that pa­tients lose like is­lands of vi­sion. So what we’re do­ing in our tests is ac­tu­al­ly mea­sur­ing […] is­lands that the pa­tients have at base­line, and then what we’re see­ing af­ter treat­ment is that the is­lands are ex­pand­ing. It’s sim­i­lar to the way that one would track, let’s say a tu­mor, in on­col­o­gy of course we’re look­ing for the op­po­site ef­fect. We’re look­ing for the is­lands of vi­sion to ex­pand.”

The ther­a­py works pri­mar­i­ly by pre­serv­ing pho­tore­cep­tors, Klassen posits, not by gen­er­at­ing new ones. But what he thinks is hap­pen­ing is that pho­tore­cep­tors are re­gen­er­at­ing the out­er seg­ment — if pho­tore­cep­tors are ra­dios, these would be the an­ten­na — there­by re­gain­ing some func­tion.

That could po­si­tion it as a treat­ment for a dif­fer­ent stage of the dis­ease than Spark’s or Night­star’s. Klassen, who’s al­so re­search­ing reti­nal re­con­struc­tion us­ing stem cells, is hap­py to not view it through the com­pet­i­tive lens.

“If you look in­to the fu­ture, one could imag­ine that gene ther­a­pies will be most ef­fec­tive very ear­ly in the course of a dis­ease be­fore pho­tore­cep­tors are lost,” he said. “Then as pho­tore­cep­tors be­gin to be lost any­way, if that hap­pens, then a ther­a­py like ours would be­come ex­treme­ly valu­able. And if ours starts to lose pow­er late in the course of a dis­ease, maybe cell trans­plan­ta­tion un­der the reti­na could have a role.”

How one start­up fore­told the neu­ro­science re­nais­sance af­ter '50 years of shit­show'

In the past couple of years, something curious has happened: Pharma and VC dollars started gushing into neuroscience research.

Biogen’s controversial new Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm has been approved on the basis of removing amyloid plaque from the brain, but the new neuro-focused pharma and biotechs have much loftier aims. Significantly curbing or even curing the most notorious disorders would prove the Holy Grail for a complex system that has tied the world’s best drug developers in knots for decades.

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Bob Bradway, Amgen CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Am­gen bel­lies back up to the M&A ta­ble for an­oth­er biotech buy­out, this time with a $2.5B deal for an an­ti­body play­er fo­cused on PS­MA

Five months after Amgen CEO Bob Bradway stepped up to the M&A table and acquired Five Prime for $1.9 billion, following up with the smaller Rodeo acquisition, he’s gone back in for another biotech buyout.

This time around, Amgen is paying $900 million cash while committing up to $1.6 billion in milestones to bag the privately held Teneobio, an antibody drug developer that has expertise in developing new bispecifics and multispecifics. In addition, Amgen cited Teneobio’s “T-cell engager platform, which expands on Amgen’s existing leadership position in bispecific T-cell engagers by providing a differentiated, but complementary, approach to Amgen’s current BiTE platform.”

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Ryan Watts, Denali CEO

De­nali slips as a snap­shot of ear­ly da­ta rais­es some trou­bling ques­tions on its pi­o­neer­ing blood-brain bar­ri­er neu­ro work

Denali Therapeutics had drummed up considerable hype for their blood-brain barrier technology since launching over six years ago, hype that’s only intensified in the last 14 months following the publications of a pair of papers last spring and proof of concept data earlier this year. On Sunday, the South San Francisco-based biotech gave the biopharma world the next look at in-human data for its lead candidate in Hunter syndrome.

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Art Levinson (Calico)

Google-backed Cal­i­co dou­bles down on an­ti-ag­ing R&D pact with Ab­b­Vie as part­ners ante up $1B, start to de­tail drug tar­gets

Seven years after striking up a major R&D alliance, AbbVie and Google-backed anti-aging specialist Calico are doubling down on their work with a joint, $1 billion commitment to continuing their work together. And they’re also beginning to offer some details on where this project is taking them in the clinic.

According to their statement, each of the two players is putting up $500 million more to keep the labs humming.

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Ugur Sahin, BioNTech CEO (Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP Images)

BioN­Tech is spear­head­ing an mR­NA vac­cine de­vel­op­ment pro­gram for malar­ia, with a tech trans­fer planned for Africa

Flush with the success of its mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, BioNTech is now gearing up for one of the biggest challenges in vaccine development — which comes without potential profit.

The German mRNA pioneer says it plans to work on a jab for malaria, then transfer the tech to the African continent, where it will work with partners on developing the manufacturing ops needed to make this and other vaccines.

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Why is On­col­o­gy Drug De­vel­op­ment Re­search Late to the Dig­i­tal Bio­mark­ers Game?

During the recent Annual ASCO Meeting, thousands of cancer researchers and clinicians from across the globe joined together virtually to present and discuss the latest findings and breakthroughs in cancer research and care. There were more than 5000+ scientific abstracts presented during this event, yet only a handful involved the use of motion-tracking wearables to collect digital measures relating to activity, sleep, mobility, functional status, and/or quality of life. Although these results were a bit disappointing, they should come as no surprise to those of us in the wearable technology field.

UP­DAT­ED: Pan­el of neu­ro­science ex­perts lays out the com­pli­ca­tions with us­ing Bio­gen's new Alzheimer's drug

Treatment of early Alzheimer’s patients with Biogen’s new drug Aduhelm should closely resemble how the drug was studied in its pivotal clinical trials, according to new recommendations from a panel of neuroscience experts led by UNLV’s Jeffrey Cummings.

“Those considering aducanumab therapy should understand that the expected benefit is slowing of cognitive and functional decline; improvement of the current clinical state is not anticipated,” they wrote Tuesday in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, noting that some of their recommendations are more specific or more restrictive than the information provided in the FDA’s prescribing information.

Christophe Weber, Takeda CEO (Kyodo via AP Images)

Take­da flesh­es out CNS pact with pep­tide drug­mak­er, set­ting aside $3.5B in fu­ture mile­stones

One of a suite of drugmakers looking to reinvest in the neuroscience space, Takeda has been aggressive in signing on new partners to help build up its pipeline in that space. But sometimes the best partner is the one you already have.

Takeda will set aside $3.5 billion in future milestones and an undisclosed upfront payment to build out its drug discovery deal with Japanese peptide conjugate maker PeptiDream, adding neurodegeneration to the partnership’s list of CNS targets, the companies said Tuesday.

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George Yancopoulos, Regeneron

Re­gen­eron's lat­est ge­net­ics dis­cov­ery hooks As­traZeneca — now all-in on de­vel­op­ing small mol­e­cules for obe­si­ty

Just weeks after its widely lauded genetics research arm tagged a promising new target for obesity, Regeneron has signed up an industry heavyweight to collaborate with on developing new drugs that can potentially act as a game-changer in what has proven to be a tough field for developers.

The Regeneron Genetics Center published a paper in Science at the beginning of this month highlighting how their work sequencing the genomes of 650,000 people highlighted how people with at least 1 inactive copy of the GPR75 gene weighed on average 12 pounds less than the rest of the population with a 54% reduction in risk of obesity.

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