DCVC Bio, 5AM back col­o­niz­ing army of ge­net­i­cal­ly en­gi­neered gut bac­te­ria with $33M

A few years back, re­searchers study­ing gas­tric by­pass no­ticed some­thing: The fa­mous gut-shrink­ing weight-loss surgery might work, but not be­cause it changed how the body ab­sorbs nu­tri­ents, as doc­tors be­lieved. Rather, the surgery changed the mi­crobes in the gut and thus the mol­e­cules they se­cret­ed, which in turn set off process­es that made pa­tients feel full faster.

Re­searchers then made a sim­ple log­i­cal jump: Why not just give the pa­tients new bac­te­ria, and cut out the in­va­sive surgery (by­pass the by­pass, if you will)? It was hard­ly a soli­tary con­clu­sion. Oth­er re­searchers found en­gi­neered bac­te­ria could get pa­tients the mol­e­cules need­ed to boost in­sulin pro­duc­tion, clear out ar­ter­ies, and help pre­vent colon can­cer.

One prob­lem with this ap­proach – and there are a few – is that bac­te­ria have no on/off switch. Or­gan­isms prop­a­gate, or die, and doc­tors can’t pre­cise­ly con­trol and change dos­ing, as they can with small mol­e­cules.

Blake Wise

Novome of­fers one so­lu­tion to that prob­lem. Found­ed in 2016 out of Stan­ford, the com­pa­ny has spent the last four years build­ing ge­net­i­cal­ly-mod­i­fied bac­te­ria they say they can send to col­o­nize a pa­tient’s gut and then steadi­ly con­trol through a dai­ly dose of a spe­cial pre­bi­ot­ic, a form of food for bac­te­ria. They want to use these robo-bac­te­ria to treat chron­ic dis­eases, and they’ve just raised $33 mil­lion from DCVC Bio and 5AM ven­tures, among oth­ers, to help launch their first tri­al.

They al­so hired a new CEO in Blake Wise, the for­mer chief of the sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly suc­cess­ful but nonethe­less bank­rupt an­tibi­ot­ic de­vel­op­er Achao­gen.

Ge­net­i­cal­ly en­gi­neered bac­te­ria are hard­ly new. Sci­en­tists first edit­ed E. Coli to pro­duce hu­man in­sulin back in 1978, and Syn­log­ic launched one of the first bac­te­ria-pill tri­als, for urea cy­cle dis­or­ders, in 2017.

Novome’s plat­form stands out for its promised nim­ble­ness. Like the le­gions of tiny ro­bots fu­tur­ist as­tronomers be­lieve we’ll one day use to col­o­nize the uni­verse from afar, these col­o­niz­ing bac­te­ria are de­signed to es­sen­tial­ly be tiny emis­saries of a doc­tor in the gut. The or­gan­isms – or what the biotech calls “Ge­net­i­cal­ly En­gi­neered Mi­cro­bioal Med­i­cines” (GEMMS) – are en­gi­neered to de­pend on a par­tic­u­lar pre­bi­ot­ic giv­en dai­ly, which acts as both a sig­nal­ing de­vice and an on/off switch. A doc­tor can use them to reg­u­late the bac­te­ria and thus the “drugs” they give off. For chron­ic dis­ease pa­tients, it’s a chron­ic treat­ment that can nev­er­the­less be ad­just­ed.

The biotech so far has pub­lished their re­search in Na­ture and Cell and their lead pro­gram is in hy­per­ox­aluria, a lead­ing cause of kid­ney stones. They will look to start a Phase I soon, while de­vel­op­ing oth­er pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams, in­clud­ing one for ir­ri­ta­ble bow­el syn­drome.

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.