Image: Chris Varma. Frontier

Chris Var­ma un­veils MP­M's lat­est start­up — eye­ing 'un­drug­gable' can­cer tar­gets and pow­ered by ma­chine learn­ing, $67M

Two years af­ter MPM Cap­i­tal en­list­ed Chris Var­ma on its busy on­col­o­gy team, the for­mer en­tre­pre­neur-in-res­i­dence is un­veil­ing his first ven­ture project out of his new stomp­ing grounds in the Bay Area: Fron­tier Med­i­cines.

For Var­ma, who’s al­so co-found­ed Blue­print Med­i­cines and built com­pa­nies at Third Rock and Flag­ship, this marks an­oth­er op­por­tu­ni­ty to ap­ply some cut­ting-edge sci­ence to “sev­er­al of the most im­por­tant and dif­fi­cult tar­gets in can­cer” — tar­gets that oth­ers have tried to tack­le with more clas­si­cal meth­ods and failed. The launch round comes in at $67 mil­lion, which should go some way in scaf­fold­ing a pre­clin­i­cal pipeline and push one or more as­sets in­to the clin­ic three years from now, he tells me.

Daniel No­mu­ra Fron­tier

Fron­tier’s stat­ed mis­sion — drug­ging pre­vi­ous­ly “un­drug­gable” pro­teins — comes right out of MPM’s play­book for a $408 mil­lion fund that man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Luke Evnin said would still be dom­i­nat­ed by on­col­o­gy plays. That mantra in biotech R&D re­cent­ly got a big boost when Am­gen pre­sent­ed the first cut of hu­man da­ta on its ef­fort to tar­get KRAS G12C with a small mol­e­cule drug.

Even dis­ease-caus­ing pro­teins with no known bind­ing sites, the the­o­ry at Fron­tier goes, bend and cre­ate tem­po­rary pock­ets when they move, crack­ing up a win­dow for ther­a­peu­tic in­no­va­tion.

“Drug­gable” pro­teins, Var­ma ex­plains, are like coat hang­ers: They have nice cor­ners that drugs can dock in­to. The oth­er 90% of the hu­man pro­teome ap­pear, fig­u­ra­tive­ly, more like a string. But in re­al­i­ty pro­teins are more dy­nam­ic than that.

“If you shake the string, you wig­gle it, then you see that ac­tu­al­ly curves do form and with­in those curves are cor­ners and you could imag­ine dock­ing a small mol­e­cule drug in­to those,” Var­ma says. Fron­tier’s tech then al­lows them to put a co­va­lent bind there, cre­at­ing a per­ma­nent lock in a tran­sient cor­ner.

Rober­to Zon­cu Pew

UC Berke­ley pro­fes­sors Daniel No­mu­ra and Rober­to joined CEO Var­ma in co-found­ing the biotech, with chemo­pro­teom­ic plat­forms and some ba­sic re­search on can­cer growth reg­u­la­tion in tow, re­spec­tive­ly. That com­bi­na­tion gives Fron­tier a data­base of hotspots (or bind­ing pock­ets) in hu­man pro­teins as well as a li­brary of com­pounds, to be sift­ed through by ma­chine learn­ing tech­niques. In ad­di­tion to tra­di­tion­al small mol­e­cule drugs, it al­so boasts of a “nov­el ap­proach to pro­tein degra­da­tion” — a pop­u­lar and in­creas­ing­ly crowd­ed field.

“It’s an al­ter­na­tive path­way for us to make sure that we can re­al­ly go af­ter any pro­tein tar­get of in­ter­est,” Var­ma, who left MPM a few months ago to go all in with the ven­ture, says.

While his team of 10 — he ex­pects to at least dou­ble that by the end of the year — is push­ing as hard as they can on in­ter­nal pro­grams, he added, they are open to part­ner­ing in oth­er can­cers and ther­a­peu­tic ar­eas such as neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion.

Jim Win­kler, a for­mer CSO at pro­tein degra­da­tion spe­cial­ist Arv­inas, is spear­head­ing the de­grad­er tech de­vel­op­ment while da­ta sci­ence ex­pert Jo­hannes Her­mann takes up the chief tech­nol­o­gy of­fi­cer’s role. In a re­cent stint, Her­mann head­ed up ma­chine learn­ing and ad­vanced an­a­lyt­ics at J&J’s Janssen.

To com­plete the Se­ries A, the co-founders brought in Deer­field Man­age­ment and Droia On­col­o­gy Ven­ture along­side MPM, while DCVC Bio, RA Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment and oth­er in­vestors al­so par­tic­i­pat­ed.

Pfiz­er’s Doug Gior­dano has $500M — and some ad­vice — to of­fer a cer­tain breed of 'break­through' biotech

So let’s say you’re running a cutting-edge, clinical-stage biotech, probably public, but not necessarily so, which could see some big advantages teaming up with some marquee researchers, picking up say $50 million to $75 million dollars in a non-threatening minority equity investment that could take you to the next level.

Doug Giordano might have some thoughts on how that could work out.

The SVP of business development at the pharma giant has helped forge a new fund called the Pfizer Breakthrough Growth Initiative. And he has $500 million of Pfizer’s money to put behind 7 to 10 — or so — biotech stocks that fit that general description.

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BiTE® Plat­form and the Evo­lu­tion To­ward Off-The-Shelf Im­muno-On­col­o­gy Ap­proach­es

Despite rapid advances in the field of immuno-oncology that have transformed the cancer treatment landscape, many cancer patients are still left behind.1,2 Not every person has access to innovative therapies designed specifically to treat his or her disease. Many currently available immuno-oncology-based approaches and chemotherapies have brought long-term benefits to some patients — but many patients still need other therapeutic options.3

Hill­house re­casts spot­light on Chi­na's biotech scene with $160M round for Shang­hai-based an­ti­body mak­er

Almost two years after first buying into Genor Biopharma’s pipeline of cancer and autoimmune therapies, Hillhouse Capital has led a $160 million cash injection to push the late-stage assets over the finish line while continuing to fund both internal R&D and dealmaking.

The Series B has landed right around the time Genor would have listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, according to plans reported by Bloomberg late last year. Insiders had said that the company was looking to raise about $200 million.

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Ken Frazier, AP Images

Why Mer­ck wait­ed, and what they now bring to the Covid-19 fight

Nicholas Kartsonis had been running clinical infectious disease research at Merck for almost 2 years when, in mid-January, he got a new assignment: searching the pharma giant’s vast libraries for something that could treat the novel coronavirus.

The outbreak was barely two weeks old when Kartsonis and a few dozen others got to work, first in small teams and then in a larger task force that sucked in more and more parts of the sprawling company as Covid-19 infected more and more of the globe. By late February, the group began formally searching for vaccine and antiviral candidates to license. Still, while other companies jumped out to announce their programs and, eventually and sometimes controversially, early glimpses at human data, Merck remained silent. They made only a brief announcement about a data collection partnership in April and mentioned vaguely a vaccine and antiviral search in their April 28 earnings call.

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Mark Genovese (Stanford via Twitter)

Gilead woos fil­go­tinib clin­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tor from Stan­ford to lead the charge on NASH, in­flam­ma­to­ry dis­eases

With an FDA OK for the use of filgotinib in rheumatoid arthritis expected to drop any day now, Gilead has recruited a new leader from academia to lead its foray into inflammatory diseases.

Mark Genovese — a longtime Stanford professor and most recently the clinical chief in the division of immunology and rheumatology — was the principal investigator in FINCH 2, one of three studies that supported Gilead’s NDA filing. In his new role as SVP, inflammation, he will oversee the clinical development of the entire portfolio.

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Stephen Isaacs, Aduro president and CEO (Aduro)

Once a high fly­er, a stag­ger­ing Aduro is auc­tion­ing off most of the pipeline as CEO Stephen Isaacs hands off the shell to new own­ers

After a drumbeat of failure, setbacks and reorganizations over the last few years, Aduro CEO Stephen Isaacs is handing over his largely gutted-out shell of a public company to another biotech company and putting up some questionable assets in a going-out-of-business sale.

Isaacs —who forged a string of high-profile Big Pharma deals along the way — has wrapped a 13-year run at the biotech with one program for kidney disease going to the new owners at Chinook Therapeutics. A host of once-heralded assets like their STING agonist program partnered with Novartis (which dumped their work on ADU-S100 after looking over weak clinical results), the Lilly-allied cGAS-STING inhibitor program and the anti-CD27 program out-licensed to Merck will all be posted for auction under a strategic review process.

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Fangliang Zhang (Imaginechina via AP Images)

The big mon­ey: Poised to make drug R&D his­to­ry, a Chi­na biotech un­veils uni­corn rac­ing am­bi­tions in a bid to raise $350M-plus on Nas­daq

Almost exactly three years after Shanghai-based Legend came out of nowhere to steal the show at ASCO with jaw-dropping data on their BCMA-targeted CAR-T for multiple myeloma, the little player with Big Pharma connections is taking a giant step toward making it big on Wall Street. And this time they want to seal the deal on a global rep after staking out a unicorn valuation in what’s turned out to be a bull market for biotech IPOs — in the middle of a pandemic.

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IPOs abound in the time of coro­n­avirus, as For­ma Ther­a­peu­tics pen­cils in $150M Nas­daq de­but

The IPO engine is thriving, never mind the rampage of the coronavirus crisis on R&D timelines.

On Friday, along with synthetic lethality-focused biotech Repare Therapeutics, another Bristol Myers partner Forma Therapeutics also unveiled its plans to vault on to the Nasdaq — penciling in a target of $150 million.

The Watertown, Massachusetts-based company — which poached senior Genentech executive Frank Lee to take over the reins last year after more than a decade under founder Steve Tregay — raised a plump $100 million late last year, while shepherding its sickle cell disease (SCD) drug through an early-stage trial.

Ver­sant-backed, Bris­tol My­ers-stamped Re­pare Ther­a­peu­tics guns for $100M IPO

With a Bristol Myers Squibb endorsement in tow, Versant-backed cancer drug developer Repare Therapeutics has set its sights on a Nasdaq debut.

On Friday, the Montreal-based company with operations in Cambridge, Massachusetts that is yet to enter the clinic, unveiled plans for a $100 million IPO, banking on its “synthetic lethality” platform.

The basic idea is to target the genetic basis of tumors, a common idea across precision oncology medicines. But instead of targeting the perpetrator mutation directly, the compound is designed to go after the other gene in the gene pair. The rationale is based on the decades-old genetic principle that indicates two mutations are lethal only when combined together.