CAR macrophage tu­mor tech cre­at­ed by UPenn star sci­en­tists gets $53M

A cou­ple of star sci­en­tists at UPenn just got fi­nan­cial back­ing from Ab­b­Vie and oth­er in­vestors to come at sol­id tu­mors in an un­usu­al way: re-en­gi­neer­ing macrophages to eat up can­cer cells.

The Philadel­phia-based com­pa­ny was first chris­tened “Car­ma Ther­a­peu­tics” when it launched last year, but thanks to pesky trade­mark con­flicts its step­ping out to­day with a new moniker: Caris­ma Ther­a­peu­tics. And the new name comes with $53 mil­lion in a Se­ries A round led by Ab­b­Vie Ven­tures and Health­Cap.

Saar Gill

Loaded with ca­chet among can­cer re­searchers, the com­pa­ny’s found­ing team in­cludes Saar Gill, a ris­ing ex­pert in CAR-T cells and an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Penn’s Abram­son Can­cer Cen­ter. But Caris­ma’s CEO Steven Kel­ly tells me the com­pa­ny’s tech plat­form was large­ly built on PhD can­di­date Michael Klichin­sky’s the­sis. Klichin­sky, who co-found­ed Caris­ma, count­ed both Gill and Penn’s can­cer lu­mi­nary Carl June as his ad­vi­sors. And the com­pa­ny man­aged to bring June, who launched his own can­cer start­up Tmu­ni­ty ear­li­er this year, on­to its sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­so­ry board.

Caris­ma is work­ing in a very dif­fer­ent space than Tmu­ni­ty, Kel­ly said, but their goal is com­mon enough: get ther­a­peu­tics in­to sol­id tu­mors.

Steven Kel­ly

“CAR-T has pro­found re­sults in hema­to­log­i­cal ma­lig­nan­cy, but it has a dif­fi­cult time reach­ing the site of the tu­mor,” Kel­ly said. “If it does reach the tu­mor site, it’s met with an im­muno­sup­pres­sive en­vi­ron­ment.”

This is not the case for macrophages. These blob­by-look­ing phago­cyt­ic cells are the Pac­man of the body, sleuthing blood and tis­sue, seek­ing out pro­teins or cells that need to be nixed. They in­fil­trate tis­sue and hang out there, de­vour­ing cells as need­ed. Since these cells have no trou­ble reach­ing the tu­mor site, Caris­ma is hop­ing to har­vest them, re-en­gi­neer them with CAR tar­get­ing tech, and de­liv­er them back to the pa­tient.

“We’ve demon­strat­ed that these cells will traf­fic to the site of the tu­mor,” Kel­ly said. “In fact, half the cells there are macrophages.”

With the com­pa­ny’s new pro­ceeds, Caris­ma will take its tech through pre­clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, IND, and en­ter Phase I test­ing by 2019, Kel­ly said. The ex­cess funds will go to­wards build­ing a pipeline of on­col­o­gy drugs and ex­plor­ing oth­er ar­eas pro­tein degra­da­tion might be use­ful. Plus, they’re 5-per­son team must ex­pand. They’re hunt­ing for a new CSO and CMO, and plan to hire 20 FTEs over the next 12 months.

Im­age: Michael Klichin­sky (CARIS­MA)

It’s fi­nal­ly over: Bio­gen, Ei­sai scrap big Alzheimer’s PhI­I­Is af­ter a pre­dictable BACE cat­a­stro­phe rais­es safe­ty fears

Months after analysts and investors called on Biogen and Eisai to scrap their BACE drug for Alzheimer’s and move on in the wake of a string of late-stage failures and rising safety fears, the partners have called it quits. And they said they were dropping the drug — elenbecestat — after the independent monitoring board raised concerns about…safety.

We don’t know exactly what researchers found in this latest catastrophe, but the companies noted in their release that investigators had determined that the drug was flunking the risk/benefit analysis.

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It's not per­fect, but it's a good start: FDA pan­elists large­ly en­dorse Aim­mune's peanut al­ler­gy ther­a­py

Two days after a fairly benign review from FDA staff, an independent panel of experts largely endorsed the efficacy and safety of Aimmune’s peanut allergy therapy, laying the groundwork for approval with a risk evaluation and mitigation strategy (REMS).

Traditionally, peanut allergies are managed by avoidance, but the threat of accidental exposure cannot be nullified. Some allergists have devised a way to dose patients off-label with peanut protein derived from supermarket products to wean them off their allergies. But the idea behind Aimmune’s product was to standardize the peanut protein, and track the process of desensitization — so when accidental exposure in the real world invariably occurs, patients are less likely to experience a life-threatening allergic reaction.

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Lisa M. DeAngelis, MSKCC

MSK picks brain can­cer ex­pert Lisa DeAn­ge­lis as its next CMO — fol­low­ing José Basel­ga’s con­tro­ver­sial ex­it

It’s official. Memorial Sloan Kettering has picked a brain cancer expert as its new physician-in-chief and CMO, replacing José Baselga, who left under a cloud after being singled out by The New York Times and ProPublica for failing to properly air his lucrative industry ties.

His replacement, who now will be in charge of MSK’s cutting-edge research work as well as the cancer care delivered by hundreds of practitioners, is Lisa M. DeAngelis. DeAngelis had been chair of the neurology department and co-founder of MSK’s brain tumor center and was moved in to the acting CMO role in the wake of Baselga’s departure.

Penn team adapts CAR-T tech, reengi­neer­ing mouse cells to treat car­diac fi­bro­sis

After establishing itself as one of the pioneer research centers in the world for CAR-T cancer therapies, creating new attack vehicles to eradicate cancer cells, a team at Penn Medicine has begun the tricky transition of using the basic technology for heart repair work.

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Tal Zaks. Moderna

The mR­NA uni­corn Mod­er­na has more ear­ly-stage hu­man da­ta it wants to show off — reach­ing new peaks in prov­ing the po­ten­tial

The whole messenger RNA field has attracted billions of dollars in public and private investor cash gambled on the prospect of getting in on the ground floor. And this morning Boston-based Moderna, one of the leaders in the field, wants to show off a few more of the cards it has to play to prove to you that they’re really in the game.

The whole hand, of course, has yet to be dealt. And there’s no telling who gets to walk with a share of the pot. But any cards on display at this point — especially after being accused of keeping its deck under lock and key — will attract plenty of attention from some very wary, and wired, observers.

“In terms of the complexity and unmet need,” says Tal Zaks, the chief medical officer, “this is peak for what we’ve accomplished.”

Moderna has two Phase I studies it wants to talk about now.

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Sanofi takes a $260M hit to ex­tri­cate it­self from a dis­as­trous al­liance with Lex­i­con

Sanofi spent $300 million in cash to get into a $1.7 billion alliance with Lexicon on their SGLT1/2 diabetes drug sotagliflozin. And now that the drug has been spurned by the FDA after burning through a program that provided mixed late-stage data and a late shot at a last-place finish, the French pharma giant is forking over another $260 million to get out of the deal.

Sanofi’s unhappiness was already apparent when the company — now under new CEO Paul Hudson — posted a statement back in July that they were dropping the deal. But it wasn’t that simple. 

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Rit­ter bombs fi­nal PhI­II for sole lac­tose in­tol­er­ance drug — shares plum­met

More than two years ago Ritter Pharmaceuticals managed to find enough silver lining in its Phase IIb/III study — after missing the top-line mark — to propel its lactose intolerance toward a confirmatory trial. But as it turned out, the enthusiasm only set the biotech and its investors up to be sorely disappointed.

This time around there’s little left to salvage. Not only did RP-G28 fail to beat placebo in reducing lactose intolerance symptoms, patients in the treatment group actually averaged a smaller improvement. On a composite score measuring symptoms like abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and gas, patients given the drug had a mean reduction of 3.159 while the placebo cohort saw a 3.420 drop on average (one-sided p-value = 0.0106).

Ear­ly snap­shot of Ad­verum's eye gene ther­a­py sparks con­cern about vi­sion loss

An early-stage update on Adverum Biotechnologies’ intravitreal gene therapy has triggered investor concern, after patients with wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) saw their vision deteriorate, despite signs that the treatment is improving retinal anatomy.

Adverum, on Wednesday, unveiled 24-week data from the OPTIC trial of its experimental therapy, ADVM-022, in six patients who have been administered with one dose of the therapy. On average, patients in the trial had severe disease with an average of 6.2 anti-VEGF injections in the eight months prior to screening and an average annualized injection frequency of 9.3 injections.

Alex Ar­faei trades his an­a­lyst's post for a new role as biotech VC; Sanofi vet heads to Vi­for

Too often, Alex Arfaei arrived too late. 

An analyst at BMO Capital Markets, he’d meet with biotech or pharmaceutical heads for their IPO or secondary funding and his brain, trained on a biology degree and six years at Merck and Endo, would spring with questions: Why this biomarker? Why this design? Why not this endpoint? Not that he could do anything about it. These execs were coming for clinical money; their decisions had been made and finalized long ago.