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.

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck pulls Keytru­da in SCLC af­ter ac­cel­er­at­ed nod. Is the FDA get­ting tough on drug­mak­ers that don't hit their marks?

In what could be an early shot in the battle against drugmakers that whiff on confirmatory studies to support accelerated approvals, the FDA ordered Bristol Myers Squibb late last year to give up Opdivo’s approval in SCLC. Now, Merck is next on the firing line — are we seeing the FDA buckling down on post-marketing offenders?

Merck has withdrawn its marketing approval for PD-(L)1 inhibitor Keytruda in metastatic small cell lung cancer as part of what it describes as an “industry-wide evaluation” by the FDA of drugs that do not meet the post-marketing checkpoints on which their accelerated nods were based, the company said Monday.

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Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca CEO (AP Images)

Pas­cal So­ri­ot cash­es in As­traZeneca’s chips on Mod­er­na for $1.2B cash in­jec­tion

While still working to prove its own Covid-19 vaccine, AstraZeneca has reportedly capitalized on the success of another.

The company has sold off its 7.7% stake in Moderna and turned it into $1.2 billion in cash, according to the Times, beefing up the reserves just as Pascal Soriot is wrapping up his $39 billion acquisition of Alexion and its rare disease pipeline.

AstraZeneca’s stock sale follows a similar move by Merck in December. But like its pharma brethren, the British giant is keeping its R&D collaborations with Moderna.

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Bob Nelsen (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images)

With stars aligned and cash in re­serve, Bob Nelsen's Re­silience plans a makeover at 2 new fa­cil­i­ty ad­di­tions to its drug man­u­fac­tur­ing up­start

Bob Nelsen’s new, state-of-the-art drug manufacturing initiative is taking shape.

Just 3 months after gathering $800 million of launch money, a dream team board and a plan to shake up a field where he found too many bottlenecks and inefficiencies for the era of Covid-19, Resilience has snapped up a pair of facilities now in line for a retooling.

The company has acquired a 310,000-square-foot plant in Boston from Sanofi along with a 136,000-square-foot plant in Ontario to add to a network which CEO Rahul Singhvi says is just getting started on building his company’s operations up. The Sanofi deal comes with a contract to continue manufacturing one of its drugs.

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Af­ter bail­ing on Covid-19 vac­cines, Mer­ck will team up with J&J to pro­duce its shot as part of un­usu­al Big Phar­ma pact

Merck took a big gamble when it opted to jump into the Covid-19 vaccine race late, and made an equally momentous decision to back out in late January. Now, looking to chip in on the effort, Merck reportedly agreed to team up with one of the companies that has already crossed the finish line.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday is expected to announce a partnership between drugmakers Merck and Johnson & Johnson to jointly produce J&J’s recombinant protein Covid-19 vaccine that received the FDA’s emergency use authorization Saturday, the Washington Post reported.

Ab­b­Vie tees up a biotech buy­out af­ter siz­ing up their Parkin­son's drug spun out of Ke­van Shokat's lab

AbbVie has teed up a small but intriguing biotech buyout after looking over the preclinical work it’s been doing in Parkinson’s disease.

The company is called Mitokinin, a Bay Area biotech spun out of the lab of UCSF’s Kevan Shokat, whose scientific explorations have formed the academic basis of a slew of startups in the biotech hub. One of Shokat’s PhD students in the lab, Nicholas Hertz, co-founded Mitokinin using their lab work on PINK1 suggesting that amping up its activity could play an important role in regulating the mitochondrial dysfunction contributing to Parkinson’s disease pathogenesis and progression.

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Paul Sekhri

The next big biotech su­per­star? Paul Sekhri has some thoughts on that

It occasionally occurs to Paul Sekhri that if they pull this off, his company will be on the front page of the New York Times and a lead story in just about every major news outlet on the planet. He tries not to dwell on it, though.

“I just want to be laser-focused on getting to that point,” Sekhri says, before acknowledging, “Yes, it absolutely crossed my mind.”

Sekhri, a longtime biopharma executive with tenures at Sanofi and Novartis, is now entering year three as CEO of eGenesis, the biotech that George Church protégé Luhan Yang founded to genetically alter pigs so that they can be used for organ transplants. He led them through one megaround and has just closed another, raising $125 million from 17 different investors to push the first-ever (humanized) pig to human transplants into the clinic.

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Fi­bro­Gen shares skid low­er as a sur­prise ad­comm rais­es risks on roxa OK

FibroGen will likely have to delay its US rollout for roxadustat once again.

In an unexpected move, the FDA is convening its Cardiovascular and Renal Drugs Advisory Committee to review the NDA in an advisory committee meeting. The date is yet to be confirmed.

Just a few weeks ago, SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges predicted that the roxa approval could come ahead of the PDUFA date on March 20 — effusive despite already being let down once by the FDA’s extension of its review back in December. AstraZeneca, which is partnered with FibroGen on the chronic kidney disease-related anemia drug, disclosed regulators had requested further clarifying analyses of clinical data.

In­tro­duc­ing End­pointsF­DA+, our new pre­mi­um week­ly reg­u­la­to­ry news re­port led by Zachary Bren­nan

CRLs. 483s. CBER, CDER and RWE. For biopharma professionals, these acronyms command attention because of the fundamental role FDA plays in drug development. Now Endpoints is doubling down on regulatory coverage, and launching a weekly report focusing on developments out of White Oak, with analysis and insight into what it all means.

Coverage will be led by our new senior editor, Zachary Brennan. He joins Endpoints from POLITICO, where he covered pharma. Prior to that he was the managing editor for Regulatory Focus, a news publication from the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society.

UP­DAT­ED: Feds clear the road for J&J to start de­liv­er­ing mil­lions of dos­es of their Covid-19 vac­cine — but frets linger about run­ner-up sta­tus

All the pieces needed to trigger a third wave of Covid-19 vaccine supply to start washing over the US fell neatly into place over the weekend.

After providing for a brief mime of regulatory judiciousness, the FDA stamped their emergency approval on J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine Saturday, adding to the Biden administration’s plan aimed at ending the pandemic in the near term — at least in the US. The CDC came through on Sunday with its stamp of approval and J&J is reportedly expected to start delivering vaccine sometime in the next few days.

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