CRISPR/Cas9 pi­o­neer Chad Cow­an en­lists in Mus­tang Bio’s CAR-T quest

Chad Cow­an

The tech race spawned by a block­buster scram­ble to the top of the emerg­ing CAR-T sec­tor has in­spired a tie-up be­tween one of the pi­o­neer­ing sci­en­tists in­volved with CRISPR/Cas9 gene edit­ing and an up-and-com­er can­cer drug de­vel­op­er that is work­ing on a game plan to over­take the lead­ers — which are way out front right now.

The sci­en­tist is Chad Cow­an, a re­searcher at the Har­vard Stem Cell In­sti­tute who al­lied ear­ly on with the CRISPR/Cas9 team that launched CRISPR Ther­a­peu­tics un­der gene edit­ing star Em­manuelle Char­p­en­tier.

In a new deal an­nounced this morn­ing, Cow­an has signed on to han­dle the pre­clin­i­cal work for new drugs slat­ed to join the pipeline at a well-fi­nanced Mus­tang Bio $MBIO. And Mus­tang al­so in-li­censed CRISPR/Cas9 tech from Har­vard to use on off-the-shelf CAR-T drugs as No­var­tis and Gilead/Kite roll out the first per­son­al­ized drugs in the field. Cow­an will do the re­search at Beth Is­rael Dea­coness Med­ical Cen­ter.

Man­ny Litch­man

Mus­tang CEO Man­ny Litch­man told me re­cent­ly that the next gen­er­a­tion of CAR-T drugs to hit the mar­ket can be both more ef­fec­tive and cheap­er when it comes to treat­ing blood can­cers and sol­id tu­mors, a key part of the off-the-shelf ef­fort that looks to sup­plant the ex­pen­sive land­mark ther­a­pies made from each pa­tient’s cells.

“Look in the black box of man­u­fac­tur­ing,” Litch­man told me, and you can see “dozens of pa­ra­me­ters that can vary.”

En­list­ing Cow­an, a sci­en­tif­ic founder at CRISPR Ther­a­peu­tics, is a big plus at this ear­ly stage of the game for Mus­tang.

Litch­man is the for­mer head of on­col­o­gy BD at No­var­tis, where he 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.

In Mus­tang’s case, that al­so 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.

Says Litch­man:

CRISPR/Cas9’s demon­strat­ed pre­ci­sion may en­able us to more ef­fec­tive­ly and ac­cu­rate­ly de­liv­er our CAR T ther­a­pies and to en­hance the tu­mor killing abil­i­ty and per­sis­tence of the CAR T cells in the pa­tient’s body, which could lead to safer and more po­tent treat­ments. We look for­ward to work­ing with Dr. Cow­an and his team on this ex­cit­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion to ac­cel­er­ate the de­vel­op­ment of the next gen­er­a­tion of CAR T ther­a­pies.

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis Gene Ther­a­pies? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1,500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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The End­points 11: They've got mad mon­ey and huge am­bi­tions. It's time to go big or go home

These days, selecting a group of private biotechs for the Endpoints 11 spotlight begins with a sprint to get ahead of IPOs and the M&A teams at Big Pharma. I’ve had a couple of faceplants earlier this year, watching some of the biotechs on my short list choose a quick leap onto Nasdaq or into the arms of a buyer.

Vividion, you would have been a great pick for the Endpoints 11. I’m sorry I missed you.

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Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

FDA+ roundup: Bs­U­FA III ready for show­time, court tells FDA to re-work com­pound­ing plan, new guid­ance up­dates and more

The FDA has now spelled out what exactly will be included in the third iteration of Biosimilar User Fee Act (BsUFA) from 2023 through 2027, which similarly to the prescription drug deal, sets fees that industry has to pay for submitting applications, in exchange for firm timelines that the agency must meet.

This latest deal includes several sweeteners for the biosimilar industry, which has yet to make great strides in the US market, with shorter review timelines for safety labeling updates and updates to add or remove an indication that does not contain efficacy data.

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Jean Bennett (Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP Images)

Lux­tur­na in­ven­tor Jean Ben­nett starts a new gene ther­a­py com­pa­ny to tack­le rare dis­eases left be­hind by phar­ma, VCs

A few years ago Jean Bennett found herself in a surprising place for a woman who invented the first gene therapy ever approved in the United States: No one, it seemed, wanted her work.

Bennett, who designed and co-developed Luxturna, approved in 2018 for a rare form of blindness, had kept building new gene therapies for eye diseases at her University of Pennsylvania lab. But although the results in animals looked promising, pharma companies and investors kept turning down the pedigreed ophthalmology professor.

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Maureen Hillenmeyer, Hexagon Bio CEO

Hexa­gon Bio rais­es $61M to con­tin­ue ef­forts to turn fun­gi in­to drugs

A year after raising a $47 million launch round, the fungi-loving drug hunters at Hexagon Bio have more than doubled their coffers.

Hexagon announced today that it raised another $61 million for its efforts to design cancer and infectious disease drugs based on insights mined from the DNA in millions of species of fungi. The new financing brings Hexagon’s committed funding to over $108 million.