CRISPR pi­o­neer Feng Zhang co-founds a 'lim­it­less' biotech up­start with big plans for speed­ing new drug de­vel­op­ment

One of the key sci­en­tif­ic play­ers in­volved in the emer­gence of the in­cred­i­bly buzzy gene edit­ing tech CRISPR/Cas9 is back­ing a biotech start­up called Ar­bor Biotech­nolo­gies in Cam­bridge, MA, which just un­veiled what it be­lieves is a new, more ver­sa­tile CRISPR tech.

In a pa­per pub­lished to­day in Mol­e­c­u­lar Cell, two for­mer mem­bers of Feng Zhang’s lab — David Scott and Win­ston Yan — out­lined their dis­cov­ery of an en­zyme called Cas13d, which they say is con­sid­er­ably small­er and bet­ter than the rest of the Cas13 fam­i­ly of en­zymes, giv­ing it greater po­ten­tial in RNA surgery. And their pa­per was pub­lished on the same day as a sep­a­rate study out of Salk which cen­tered on the ex­act same en­zyme.

The biotech came out of stealth mode to­day with a $15.6 mil­lion round, which we’ve been track­ing, and a plan to em­ploy the new CRISPR sys­tem with a plat­form drug de­vel­op­ment tech built around ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, genome se­quenc­ing, gene syn­the­sis and screen­ing ef­forts to go about the busi­ness of find­ing new mol­e­cules. Us­ing the new CRISPR sys­tem to char­ac­ter­ize pro­teins, the group plans to play a role in the on­go­ing in­te­gra­tion of com­pu­ta­tion­al sci­ence in drug dis­cov­ery, look­ing to short­en de­vel­op­ment time­lines and im­prove on some in­cred­i­bly bad fail­ure rates.

In a call with me late Thurs­day, Scott and David Cheng, founder of the search en­gine at Ar­bor, em­pha­sized that the new pa­per on Cas13d was done en­tire­ly in-house.

“All of this is whol­ly an ef­fort at Ar­bor,” says Scott. “Feng is a co-founder, he is in­volved, but he is not an au­thor of the study, that was whol­ly per­formed in-house” at the 2-year-old biotech.

From the sum­ma­ry of the new pa­per:

The small size, min­i­mal tar­get­ing con­straints, and mod­u­lar reg­u­la­tion of Cas13d ef­fec­tors fur­ther ex­pands the CRISPR toolk­it for RNA ma­nip­u­la­tion and de­tec­tion.

At the same time, re­searchers at the Salk In­sti­tute al­so un­veiled their sci­en­tif­ic work on Cas13d, us­ing it to tai­lor RNA rather than DNA, where CRISPR made its rep.

“CRISPR has rev­o­lu­tion­ized genome en­gi­neer­ing, and we want­ed to ex­pand the tool­box from DNA to RNA,” said Salk’s Patrick Hsu. And like Feng Zhang, he be­lieves that Cas13d en­zymes are per­fect­ly suit­ed for the job, with im­pli­ca­tions for dis­ease caused by tox­ic RNA or im­prop­er­ly spliced RNA, the mes­sen­gers that trans­late DNA in­to pro­teins. Dubbed Cas­Rx, they pack­aged it in a virus and used it to tar­get the tox­ic tau known to clus­ter in the brains of Alzheimer’s pa­tients. Aimed at neu­rons, it worked in cells grown from a pa­tients with neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­or­der fron­totem­po­ral de­men­tia, re­bal­anc­ing tau lev­els.

David Scott

It will like­ly take years to prove if these young rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies — and a host of col­leagues op­er­at­ing in AI — are right, but they al­ready have the rapt at­ten­tion of every drug de­vel­op­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion on the plan­et.

David Walt of Har­vard and the Wyss In­sti­tute and co-founder of Il­lu­mi­na and Quan­ter­ix is cred­it­ed as a co-founder with Zhang along with Scott and Yan, who both worked in Zhang’s MIT lab. And they are pumped about the sci­en­tif­ic po­ten­tial.

“Ar­bor’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary plat­form ac­cel­er­ates the rate of dis­cov­ery and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of new bio­mol­e­cules by or­ders of mag­ni­tude,” said Scott in a state­ment.

Win­ston Yan

“We are now at the cusp of be­ing able to con­vert se­quence da­ta in­to a cat­a­log of pro­tein func­tions. The pos­si­bil­i­ties are lim­it­less,” not­ed Yan.

Zhang was the prin­ci­pal sci­en­tist be­hind the emer­gence of Ed­i­tas, one of the orig­i­nal gene edit­ing star­tups to hit fol­low­ing the emer­gence of CRISPR/Cas9, a tech that sev­er­al biotechs are us­ing to ed­it out dis­ease in genes.

Kei­th Cran­dell of ARCH Ven­ture Part­ners, An­nie Ha­zle­hurst of Fari­dan Ven­tures, and sev­er­al pri­vate in­vestors are cred­it­ed with the round.


Im­age: Feng Zhang. MIT

RWE chal­lenges for to­day's bio­phar­ma

The rapid development of technology — and the resulting avalanche of data — are catalysts for significant change in the biopharmaceutical industry. This translates into urgent pressures for today’s biopharma, including a need to quickly and affordably develop products with proven therapeutic efficacy and value. This urgency is expedited by the growth of value-based contracting, where access to reimbursement and profit depends on these abilities.

UP­DAT­ED: In a stun­ning turn­around, Bio­gen says that ad­u­canum­ab does work for Alzheimer's — but da­ta min­ing in­cites con­tro­ver­sy and ques­tions

Biogen has confounded the biotech world one more time.

In a stunning about-face, the company and its partners at Eisai say that a new analysis of a larger dataset on aducanumab has restored its faith in the drug as a game-changer for Alzheimer’s and, after talking it over with the FDA, they’ll now be filing for an approval of a drug that had been given up for dead.

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As shares suf­fer from a lin­ger­ing slump, a bruised Alk­er­mes slash­es 160 jobs in R&D re­struc­tur­ing

With its share price in a deep slump after suffering through a regulatory debacle over their depression drug ALKS 5461, Alkermes CEO Richard Pops is taking the ax to its R&D organization in a restructuring aimed at cutting costs ahead of its next attempt at a rollout in a tough field.

Richard Pops, Endpoints via Youtube

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Acor­da's Ron Co­hen brings the ax back out as new drug sales on­ly trick­le in while cash cow is led to the slaugh­ter

With its new drug earning meager sums and its one-time cash cow reduced to a bony shadow of its former self, Acorda Therapeutics today is rolling out a new restructuring aimed at slashing the staff and cutting costs to get through the hard times ahead.

The biotech is chopping a quarter of its staff today, carving back R&D as well as SG&A expenses. And CEO Ron Cohen is cutting deep.

Under the new austerity budget, Acorda’s R&D expenses for the full year 2019 are expected to be $55 – $60 million, reduced from $70 – $80 million. SG&A expenses for the full year 2019 are expected to be $185 – $190 million, reduced from $200 – $210 million. R&D expenses for the full year 2020 are expected to be $20 – $25 million and SG&A
expenses for the full year 2020 are expected to be $160 – $165 million.

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RAPT Ther­a­peu­tics re­turns to Wall Street to re­vive IPO bid

On May 24, FLX Bio, a small cancer and inflammation biotech with backing from GV, changed its name to RAPT Therapeutics and filed confidentially for an IPO. On July 5th, they filed to raise up to $86 million. On July 22, they announced the IPO with a $75 million goal.  And on August 1, they abruptly and without explanation called it all off.

Now, without explanation, they’re reviving the bid, filing again for a $75 million IPO, this time with a new bookrunner and a new drug candidate in the clinic. The terms will be the same: 5 million shares at $14-$16 per share. It would give them a diluted market value of $351 million.

EY vet set to re­place re­tir­ing Am­gen CFO Meline

Ahead of its third-quarter results next week, Amgen on Tuesday disclosed the planned retirement of David Meline, who has served as the company’s chief financial officer since 2014.

Meline will be replaced by Ernst & Young vet, Peter Griffith, as CFO come January 1, 2020 — but until then Griffith will serve as executive vice president, finance.

“Over the last 5 years at Amgen, Meline instituted many major changes that led to operational efficiencies and margin expansion while successfully returning cash to shareholders. Now that Amgen is on solid footing, it was a good time to step away,” Cowen’s Yaron Werber wrote in a note. “We do not anticipate any major changes to strategy or operations immediately due to this transition as Amgen is on solid footing.”

Eli Lil­ly’s USA, di­a­betes chief En­rique Con­ter­no is head­ing out af­ter 27 years, and he’s be­ing re­placed by a com­pa­ny in­sid­er

Close to 3 years after Eli Lilly CEO Dave Ricks added the title of president of the US operations to Enrique Conterno’s resume, which included his helmsmanship of the diabetes franchise, the Peruvian born exec is set to retire after a 27-year run at the pharma giant.

Lilly put out the news just as it was posting Q3 results, with a mix of upbeat and downbeat results in the latest set of numbers from Lilly.
Conterno — a grizzled, deeply experienced and sometimes gruff veteran of the pharma world — was a high-profile figure at Lilly, stepping up to expanded duties as the company was forced to deal with intense pricing pressure on the diabetes side of the business. He had replaced outgoing US president Alex Azar, who later popped up as head of Health and Human Services in the Trump administration.
As head of the diabetes unit, Conterno had to deal with an extraordinarily competitive field as payers demanded bigger discounts. Trulicity’s success helped generate new revenue for the company, but Q3’s miss on revenue had a lot to do with the need for discounting the drug ahead of Novo Nordisk’s rival therapy, Rybelsus, which was priced on the wholesale level at an almost identical rate.

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Vas Narasimhan. Getty Images

UP­DAT­ED: Failed PhI­II fe­vip­iprant tri­als pour more cold wa­ter on No­var­tis' block­buster R&D en­gine — and briefly spread the chill to a high-pro­file biotech

Back in July, during an investor call where Novartis execs ran through an upbeat assessment of their Q2 performance, CEO Vas Narasimhan and development chief John Tsai were pressed to predict which of the two looming Phase III readouts — involving cardio drug Entresto and asthma therapy fevipiprant, respectively — had a higher likelihood of success. Tsai gave the PARAGON-HF study with Entresto minimally better odds, but Narasimhan emphasized that their strategy of giving fevipiprant to more severe patients gave them confidence.

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No­var­tis hands off $80M in cash to part­ner up with a top biotech play­er in the fi­bro­sis sec­tor

Never underestimate the power of a good showing at a scientific conference.
In a presentation late last year, the researchers at Pliant Therapeutics launched a series of discussions about the preclinical data they were pulling together around their work on their small-molecule integrin inhibitor aimed at transforming growth factor beta, or TGF-β, a key pathway involved in fibrosis.
And they got some serious attention for the work.
“We got interest from pharma partners and at the end Novartis basically made it,” says Pliant CEO Bernard Coulie.