Can tiny Mus­tang Bio com­pete on the CAR-T front with gi­ants like No­var­tis and Gilead? Man­ny Litch­man aims to find out

Now that No­var­tis and Gilead have picked up the first two ap­provals for CAR-T drugs, you can ex­pect to see ri­vals com­ing along who will probe for any weak­ness­es in their ap­proach, look­ing to com­pete on the next wave of per­son­al­ized cell ther­a­pies head­ed through the clin­ic.

The small crew at Mus­tang Bio — $MBIO, up 11% to­day — has some big am­bi­tions on that score, and to­day they’re adding some man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­pac­i­ty that the com­pa­ny be­lieves will be cen­tral to its abil­i­ty to even­tu­al­ly com­pete with these two gi­ants.

Man­ny Litch­man

Mus­tang has inked a lease deal with the UMass Med­i­cine Sci­ence Park in Worces­ter, MA, where they ex­pect to be­gin pro­duc­tion of their CAR-Ts next year. And they’ll be aim­ing to make these cell ther­a­pies for ear­ly-stage stud­ies for glioblas­toma and acute myeloid leukemia and a grow­ing sta­ble of pre­clin­i­cal ef­forts.

Look­ing for com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tages at this stage of the game will re­ly quite a lot on a “more stream­lined, more cost ef­fec­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing ap­proach,” CEO Man­ny Litch­man tells me. “Every­thing re­al­ly has cost in mind,” he adds, siz­ing up the first two ther­a­pies that come with hefty six-fig­ure price tags.

“Look in the black box of man­u­fac­tur­ing,” he says, and you can see “dozens of pa­ra­me­ters that can vary.”

There’s more reengi­neer­ing work to be done to make CAR-Ts bet­ter at com­bat­ting can­cers like glioblas­toma and AML, he adds. In­ves­ti­ga­tors, for ex­am­ple, have been bal­anc­ing the im­pact of quick ver­sus slow­er ac­tion of the ther­a­peu­tic — slow­er ac­tion ap­pears to be more durable — along with a mul­ti­tude of com­bi­na­tion ap­proach­es that need to be ex­plored.

There’s enough po­ten­tial in these new ap­proach­es to of­fer an open­ing for a com­pa­ny like Mus­tang to step in and ex­ploit new op­por­tu­ni­ties, he be­lieves.

Litch­man left the helm at Arv­inas, a pro­tein degra­da­tion biotech spun out of the lab of Yale’s Craig Crews, to take the lunge at CAR-T. It’s a field he knows some­thing about. As for­mer head of on­col­o­gy BD at No­var­tis, Litch­man was present at the cre­ation of the Penn/No­var­tis deal that set the phar­ma gi­ant down the path to­ward an his­toric CAR-T ap­proval. He was pro­gram head of CTL019 for awhile. And he’s fol­low­ing in much the same path that the pi­o­neers — along with Kite and Juno — did, let­ting the sci­en­tif­ic founders do the ear­ly-stage re­search work that will be used to set up the fast-paced piv­otal de­vel­op­ment pro­grams to come.

Stephen For­man

In Mus­tang’s case, that in­volves Stephen For­man’s lab­o­ra­to­ry at City of Hope Na­tion­al Med­ical Cen­ter and top re­searchers at the Fred Hutchin­son Can­cer Re­search Cen­ter, where Oliv­er Press and Bri­an Till have been build­ing a T cell ther­a­py which ex­press­es a CD20-spe­cif­ic chimeric anti­gen re­cep­tor. That work has ex­pand­ed Mus­tang’s pipeline to 6 clin­i­cal and pre­clin­i­cal ef­forts.

The Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute for Re­gen­er­a­tive Med­i­cine, rest­less­ly look­ing to make a clin­i­cal mark af­ter years in­vest­ing in labs, just days ago pro­vid­ed a $12.8 mil­lion grant to the City of Hope for the Phase I glioblas­toma study. And that comes on top of a $94.5 mil­lion raise in Feb­ru­ary from a pri­vate place­ment arranged by its par­ent com­pa­ny Fortress, which is build­ing a port­fo­lio of biotechs.

Try­ing to leapfrog in­to a clin­i­cal ri­val­ry in a com­plex are­na like this will cost much, much more than that. And Litch­man tells me he has plans to raise some­where be­tween $60 mil­lion and $100 mil­lion more next year.

Right now, Mus­tang has 5 full timers, a tiny boat­load of staffers com­pared to the jug­ger­nauts crewed by No­var­tis and Gilead’s Kite. Juno al­so has a much larg­er op­er­a­tion look­ing to make a come­back af­ter their lead ther­a­py was de­stroyed by its lethal tox­i­c­i­ty. But Litch­man plans to up that to about 20 over the next year, while the in­de­pen­dent sci­en­tists con­tin­ue to do the heavy lift­ing in the ear­ly stud­ies.

This is one race that Litch­man says is still very much just be­gin­ning. And it won’t be dom­i­nat­ed by a hand­ful of lead­ers.

The 20 un­der 40: In­side the next gen­er­a­tion of bio­phar­ma lead­ers

“Each generation needs a new music,” Francis Crick wrote in 1988, reflecting back on his landmark discovery. Crick was 35, then, in 1953, when he began working with a 23-year-old named James Watson, and 37 when the pair unveiled the double helix. Rosalind Franklin, whose diffraction work undergirded their metal model, was 32.

The model would become the score for a new era in biology, one devoted to cracking the basic structures turning inside life. Subsequent years would bring new conductors and new rhythms: Robert Swanson, 29 when he convinced a 39-year-old Herb Boyer to build a company off his work and call it Genentech; Phillip Sharp, 29 when he discovered RNA splicing and 34 when he co-founded Biogen; Frances Arnold, 36 when she pioneered directed evolution; Feng Zhang, 31 when he published his CRISPR paper.

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Chart-top­ping ven­ture cash? Strong deal flow? In the month Covid-19 ripped around the globe? Yup

It turns out that even sending everyone from the CEO to rank-and-file staffers home to work in the middle of a Category 5 pandemic wasn’t enough to put a crimp in the flow of venture cash into biopharma. And even dealmaking held its own against the howling winds of misfortune — largely because a group of savvy players was quick to adjust to the new reality.

Our deal expert Chris Dokomajilar ran the numbers for us on a month-to-month basis and found that not only was venture money flowing during the panicky month of March, but it was also hitting home in record sums compared to the last 26 months of deal flow.

Say what?

As you can see in the top chart below, Dokomajilar outlined how the industry racked up $2.41 billion in total for March, just barely ahead of one other topper during the heady days of August 2018.

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FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn and President Donald Trump at a press briefing on March 19, 2020. (AP Images)

Biotech ex­ecs warn that the FDA is fum­bling their re­sponse to the Covid-19 open-door promise, de­lay­ing progress

A few days ago the FDA touted a procedure for Covid-19 meds that committed the agency to immediate action for developers, formalizing a high-speed response that’s been promised for weeks.

Bioregnum Opinion Column by John Carroll

Decisions that once required months would be measured in hours under the Coronavirus Treatment Acceleration Program. “In many cases” trial protocols could be hammered out in less than a single day. If you had a potential solution to the crisis, the appropriate staffer would be in touch “to get studies underway quickly.”

It would be the ultimate high-speed regulatory pathway from Phase I to approval. Red tape was banished.

But it’s clear that for some — and quite likely many — biopharma execs, the actual agency response has not measured up to the promise. Beyond the front ranks of advanced companies in the field, like Gilead, or for drugs endorsed by President Trump, it may not even come close.

“The first response is this form letter everyone gets,” says one biotech CEO who’s reached out to the FDA on Covid-19. And when you try to cut through that, the ball gets dropped as it is passed from top officials to the frontline staff actually charged with getting things done.

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GSK's Hal Bar­ron buys a $250M stake in George Scan­gos' Vir and makes a bee­line to the clin­ic with Covid-19 an­ti­bod­ies

GlaxoSmithKline is diving straight into the swirling waters of Covid-19 R&D work, and investing $250 million to grab a chunk of equity in one of the emerging stars in infectious disease research to make it official.

GSK put out word this morning that it is partnering with Vir Biotechnology $VIR, the infectious disease startup founded in the Bay Area by former Biogen CEO George Scangos. They’re planning a leap into Phase II studies for 2 preclinical antibody candidates — VIR-7831 and VIR-7832 — that have been engineered to target the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

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UP­DAT­ED: A small, ob­scure biotech just won big with their IPO. In this mar­ket. Are you kid­ding me?

How could a small, largely unknown biotech that emerged from stealth mode just months ago with early-stage cancer programs jump onto Wall Street in the middle of a Category 6 financial hurricane and sail through with a $165 million IPO?

And what does that mean for the rest of the industry waiting to see just how much damage global lockdowns will wreak on clinical development?

The biotech is a company called Zentalis. The crew there nabbed an $85 million crossover round late last year — notably waiting 5 years before waving the numbers around to attract attention, according to my read of a FierceBiotech story. Perceptive joined in, but the syndicate was not in general the kind of marquee affair that gets tongues wagging.

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Ready to de­clare a de­fin­i­tive come­back in two months, Im­munomedics stops PhI­II ear­ly, re­cruits new CEO

More than a year ago, hit by a surprise complete response letter from the FDA, Immunomedics bid its then-CEO, Michael Pehl, adieu and began a 15-month quest to resolve the manufacturing issues cited in the CRL and seek a new leader — all the while moving forward with a Phase III study on its lead drug for metastatic triple-negative breast cancer.

Today the biotech said their stars are finally aligning. Not only is Novartis Oncology vet Harout Semerjian coming on board as CEO to steer what they believe will be a smooth sail to a new PDUFA date in June, Immunomedics has also been informed that their late-stage trial can be stopped early due to “compelling evidence of efficacy.”

An­oth­er day, an­oth­er boat­load for biotech. Deer­field adds $840M to rush of ven­ture dol­lars

The biotech dollars just keep rolling in.

Even as the world economy faces an economic contraction unprecedented in nature, biotech venture capital firms are announcing huge new investment pots. The latest? Deerfield Management Co.

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Small mol­e­cules, bi­o­log­ics and now gene ther­a­pies: Ger­many's Evotec adds an­oth­er feath­er to its R&D cap

German drug discovery company Evotec — which has a thriving rolodex of biopharma partners such as Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Sanofi, and Takeda — is now venturing into gene therapies.

The company swallowed Seattle-based Just Biotherapeutics, a company focused on reducing the cost of manufacturing protein therapies last year. It is now setting up a dedicated R&D site for gene therapies in Austria, in an effort to achieve a “modality-agnostic” repertoire — small molecules, biologics and now gene therapies.

A pair of PhI­II fail­ures spells last rites for Men­lo’s once-promis­ing Mer­ck drug

Four months after an intercontinental merger, Menlo Therapeutics is counting yet another pair of trial failures — ones with significant consequences for the companies, their shareholders and the drug.

In two pivotal Phase III trials, Menlo’s lead drug serlopitant failed to treat pruritus associated with prurigo nodularis — basically itchiness from a particular skin disease that causes red lesions on a person’s arms or legs. Serlopitant has long been the company’s only drug and as recently as 2018, it looked promising enough to support a stock price of $37. In April of that year, a Phase II failure demolished the stock price overnight: $35 to $9. Other subsequent stumbles trickled the ticker down to just above $2.