Com­pu­ta­tion­al sci­en­tists de­sign a new IL-2 can­cer drug and spin it out in­to a biotech start­up

One of the Holy Grails in the boom­ing im­muno-on­col­o­gy re­search field right now in­volves find­ing an IL-2 drug that can be used safe­ly and ef­fec­tive­ly to com­bat can­cer, with­out the im­mense tox­i­c­i­ty that has large­ly side­lined the orig­i­nal IL-2 Pro­leukin. Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb paid Nek­tar $1.85 bil­lion in up­front cash to part­ner on NK­TR-214 — which has since come un­der a cloud of un­cer­tain­ty over flail­ing re­sponse rates in their key demon­stra­tion study com­bin­ing it with Op­di­vo.

Now a group of sci­en­tists at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton says they built an IL-2 pro­tein ther­a­py all their own, and they’ve launched a new biotech — Ne­oleukin — to take it for­ward from mouse stud­ies to­ward the clin­ic.

Umut Ulge

De­scrib­ing their work to a writer at UW Med­i­cine, the group says they de­signed their pro­tein to bind specif­i­cal­ly to IL-2  be­ta and gam­ma re­cep­tors to whip up a more po­tent T cell re­sponse to can­cer while steer­ing clear of CD25 to cir­cum­vent the tox­ic re­ac­tion. By do­ing that they cre­at­ed a lab mod­el of the drug that the sci­en­tists were able to ratch­et up the dose on with­out the lethal re­ac­tion.

They al­so added a com­ple­men­tary com­po­nent for IL-15 to in­crease the ef­fi­ca­cy and dubbed the drug Neo-2/15, de­scrib­ing it as par­tic­u­lar­ly small and sta­ble. And the game plan is to con­tin­ue to use their com­pu­ta­tion­al skills to im­prove the drug.

“Neo-2/15 has ther­a­peu­tic prop­er­ties that are at least as good as or bet­ter than nat­u­ral­ly oc­cur­ring IL-2, but it was com­pu­ta­tion­al­ly de­signed to be much less tox­ic,” said Umut Ulge, one of the lead au­thors of a pa­per pub­lished in Na­ture.

An il­lus­tra­tion de­pict­ing how the new pro­tein, in red, binds on­ly to the be­ta and gam­ma re­cep­tors, and not to cells with a third kind of re­cep­tor. (UW MED­I­CINE)

Click on the im­age to see the full-sized ver­sion

Ne­oleukin, though, is hard­ly the on­ly ri­val to the throne that Nek­tar and Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb have been striv­ing for. Lau­ra Shawver’s Syn­thorx has al­so been an­gling for the clin­ic — in H1 of this year — with their drug can­di­date Syn­thorin IL-2, backed by Or­bimed and Medicxi. The biotech $THOR went pub­lic just a few weeks ago, rais­ing $150 mil­lion.

Last No­vem­ber Nek­tar Ther­a­peu­tics $NK­TR man­aged to add 1 more pa­tient out of its 38 evalu­able stage 4 melanoma pa­tients to the win col­umn with its close­ly-watched 3-month up­date on Op­di­vo/NK­TR-214’s ob­jec­tive re­sponse rate. That man­aged to nudge up the ORR from 50% — a fig­ure that rout­ed Nek­tar’s stock at AS­CO — to 53%. But the sci­en­tists al­so pushed up the com­plete re­sponse rate to 24%, main­tain­ing they were sat­is­fied with the im­proved re­sponse they were see­ing.

As Nas­daq en­rolls the fi­nal batch of 2019 IPOs, how have the num­bers com­pared to past years?

IGM Biosciences’ upsized IPO haul, coming after SpringWorks’ sizable public debut, has revved up some momentum for the last rush of biotech IPOs in 2019.

With 39 new listings on the books and roughly two more months to go before winding down, Nasdaq’s head of healthcare listings Jordan Saxe sees the exchange marking 50 to 60 biopharma IPOs for the year.

“December 15 is usually the last possible day that companies will price,” he said, as companies get ready for business talks at the annual JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in January.

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A fa­vorite in Alex­ion’s C-suite is leav­ing, and some mighty sur­prised an­a­lysts aren’t the least bit hap­py about it

Analysts hate to lose a biotech CFO they’ve come to trust and admire — especially if they’re being blindsided by a surprise exit.

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David Grainger [file photo]

'Dis­con­nect the bas­tard­s' — one biotech's plan to break can­cer cell­s' uni­fied de­fens­es

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are the current gladiators of cancer treatment, but they come with well-known limitations and side-effects. The emergence of immunotherapy — a ferocious new titan in oncologist’s toolbox — takes the brakes off the immune system to kill cancer cells with remarkable success in some cases, but the approach is not always effective. What makes certain forms of cancer so resilient? Scientists may have finally pieced together a tantalizing piece of the puzzle, and a new biotech is banking on a new approach to fill the gap.

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While No­var­tis ban­ish­es Zol­gens­ma scan­dal scars — Bio­gen goes on a Spin­raza 'of­fen­sive'

While Novartis painstakingly works to mop up the stench of the data manipulation scandal associated with its expensive gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) Zolgensma— rival Biogen is attempting to expand the use of its SMA therapy, Spinraza. 

The US drugmaker $BIIB secured US approval for Spinraza for use in the often fatal genetic disease in 2016. The approval covered a broad range of patients with infantile-onset (most likely to develop Type 1) SMA. 

Jason Kelly. Mike Blake/Reuters via Adobe

Eye­ing big ther­a­peu­tic push, Gink­go bags $290M to build a cell pro­gram­ming em­pire

Ginkgo Bioworks is on a roll. Days after publicizing a plan to nurture new startups via partnerships with accelerators Y Combinator and Petri, the Boston biotech says it has raised another $290 million for its cell programming platform to reach further and wider.

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UP­DAT­ED: Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi to un­veil bill for fed­er­al­ly ne­go­ti­at­ed drug prices

After months of buzz from both sides of the aisle, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will today introduce her plan to allow the federal government to negotiate prices for 250 prescription drugs, setting up a showdown with a pharmaceutical industry working overtime to prevent it.

The need to limit drug prices is a rare point of agreement between President Trump and Democrats, although the president has yet to comment on the proposal and will likely face pressure to back a more conservative option or no bill at all. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley is reportedly lobbying his fellow party members on a more modest proposal he negotiated with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden in July.

Jeff Kindler's Cen­trex­ion re­news bid to make pub­lic de­but

Jeffrey Kindler’s plan to take his biotech — which is developing a slate of non-opioid painkillers — public, is back on.

The Boston based company, led by former Pfizer $PFE chief Kindler, originally contemplated a $70 million to $80 million IPO last year— but eventually postponed that strategy. On Wednesday, the company revived its bid to make a public debut in a filing with the SEC — although no pricing details were disclosed.

Zachary Hornby. Boundless

'A fourth rev­o­lu­tion in can­cer ther­a­pies': ARCH-backed Bound­less Bio flash­es big check, makes big­ger promis­es in de­but

It was the cellular equivalent of opening your car door and finding an active, roaring engine in the driver seat.

Scientists learned strands of DNA could occasionally appear outside of its traditional home in the nucleus in the 1970s, when they appeared as little, innocuous circles on microscopes; inexplicable but apparently innate. But not until UC San Diego’s Paul Mischel published his first study in Science in 2014 did researchers realize these circles were not only active but potentially overactive and driving some cancer tumors’ superhuman growth.

Scott Gottlieb, AP Images

Scott Got­tlieb is once again join­ing a team that en­joyed good times at the FDA un­der his high-en­er­gy stint at the helm

Right after jumping on Michael Milken’s FasterCures board on Monday, the newly departed FDA commissioner is back today with news about another life sciences board post that gives him a ringside chair to cheer on a lead player in the real-world evidence movement — one with very close ties to the FDA.

Aetion is reporting this morning that Gottlieb is joining their board, a group that includes Mohamad Makhzoumi, a general partner at New Enterprise Associates, where Gottlieb returned after stepping out of his role at the FDA 2 years after he started.

Gottlieb — one of the best connected execs in biopharma — knows this company well. As head of FDA he championed the use of real-world evidence to help guide drug developers and the agency in gaining greater efficiencies, which helped set up Aetion as a high-profile player in the game.

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