Eli Lil­ly hands transpa­cif­ic biotech up­start Terns pieces to an ex­per­i­men­tal NASH puz­zle

Wei­dong Zhong

For Wei­dong Zhong, the fastest part of start­ing up a transpa­cif­ic biotech was find­ing the mon­ey.

Al­most im­me­di­ate­ly af­ter step­ping out of No­var­tis’ ear­ly-stage re­search group a year ago, the long­time in­ves­ti­ga­tor with a back­ground that in­cludes a stint in­volv­ing liv­er dis­eases at Gilead had the en­thu­si­as­tic back­ing of Lil­ly Asia Ven­tures, a busy ven­ture group which pro­vid­ed the $30 mil­lion need­ed to get go­ing.

“They very much liked the idea,” Zhong tells me. “We didn’t even have time to dis­close that (Se­ries A) be­cause every­thing hap­pened so quick­ly.”

Now, the rest of it is com­ing to­geth­er quick­ly as well, with a pipeline that’s be­ing swelled to­day by an in-li­cens­ing deal with Eli Lil­ly de­liv­er­ing three pro­grams for NASH. So it’s a good time, Zhong feels, to make the de­but they had missed a year ago.

The ba­sic idea at Terns Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals was that a Cal­i­for­nia-based dis­cov­ery team al­lied with a small de­vel­op­ment group in Chi­na could as­sem­ble a pipeline and ef­fi­cient­ly de­vel­op new drugs pri­mar­i­ly for the Chi­nese mar­ket.

“We can short­en the time it takes to de­vel­op drugs for the Chi­na mar­ket,” says the CEO, who feels they are well po­si­tioned to trans­late the rapid­ly im­prov­ing reg­u­la­to­ry process in Chi­na. Eli Lil­ly plans to learn from their progress.

With an in­tro from their col­leagues at Lil­ly Asia Ven­tures, they were able to ink an agree­ment with the moth­er com­pa­ny that cov­ers a clin­i­cal-stage far­ne­soid X re­cep­tor (FXR) ag­o­nist, TERN-101, a semi­car­bazide-sen­si­tive amine ox­i­dase (SSAO) in­hibitor, TERN-201 — which is near­ing IND sub­mis­sion — and an undis­closed pre­clin­i­cal can­di­date. And they are com­bin­ing the NASH work with on­col­o­gy, build­ing on the 5 pro­grams pieced to­geth­er by their in-house group in Shang­hai.

101 seems well de­signed to ad­vance in Chi­na, says the sci­en­tist, as the var­i­ous play­ers be­gin to as­sem­ble the unique com­bi­na­tions that he be­lieves will be need­ed to ad­dress var­i­ous stages of NASH, as well as pos­si­bly dif­fer­ent ge­net­ic groups. 201, though, he be­lieves has the kind of first-in-class po­ten­tial that they could work on for both the US and the Chi­nese mar­kets si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly.

The move to out li­cense drugs point­ed pri­mar­i­ly to Chi­na comes about a year af­ter Lil­ly opt­ed to shut down its R&D base in Shang­hai, fol­low­ing a pat­tern of big phar­ma ex­its that al­so in­clud­ed GSK. Lil­ly now is fo­cus­ing on al­liances like this one to ad­vance new drugs in the boom­ing Asian mar­ket.

Zhong likes the idea of go­ing back in­to liv­er dis­eases and match­ing it with on­col­o­gy as a good way of dis­tin­guish­ing the start­up in a boom­ing Chi­nese biotech field. And he has every in­ten­tion of stay­ing in the fast lane.

Their pro­jec­tion for the SSAO drug is to get it in­to the clin­ic in ear­ly 2019, with a shot at com­plet­ing the proof-of-con­cept stage in 2021 that could — if every­thing works out — leave them on the thresh­old of a late-stage pro­gram.

That’s am­bi­tious for a com­pa­ny that cur­rent­ly to­tals about 15 full timers, plus CRO help. But Zhong feels that the com­pa­ny can op­er­ate like the small, tough lit­tle wa­ter bird it’s named af­ter, built for long mi­gra­tions. 

They may be small, but Terns plans to go far.

Brent Saunders [Getty Photos]

UP­DAT­ED: Ab­b­Vie seals $63B deal to buy a trou­bled Al­ler­gan — spelling out $1B in R&D cuts

Brent Saunders has found his way out of the current fix he’s in at Allergan $AGN. He’s selling the company to AbbVie for $63 billion in the latest example of the hot M&A market in biopharma.

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Turned back at the FDA, Im­muno­Gen is ax­ing 220 staffers, sell­ing pro­grams and hun­ker­ing down for a new PhI­II gam­ble

After being stymied by FDA regulators who were unconvinced by ImmunoGen’s $IMGN desperation shot at an accelerated OK based on a secondary endpoint, the struggling biotech is slashing its workforce, shuttering R&D projects and looking for buyers to pick up some of its experimental cancer assets as it goes back into a new Phase III with the lead drug.

We found out last month that the FDA had batted back their case for an accelerated approval of their antibody-drug conjugate mirvetuximab soravtansine, which had earlier failed a Phase III study for ovarian cancer. Now the other shoe is dropping.

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Bridge­Bio takes crown for biggest biotech IPO of 2019, as fel­low uni­corn Adap­tive rais­es of­fer­ing size and price

Bridge­Bio Phar­ma and Adap­tive Biotech­nolo­gies have not just up­sized IPO of­fer­ings — the pair of uni­corns have al­so raised their of­fer­ing prices above the range, haul­ing in a com­bined $648.5 mil­lion.

Neil Ku­mar’s Bridge­Bio Phar­ma, found­ed in 2015, has a sta­ble of com­pa­nies fo­cused on dis­eases that are dri­ven by de­fects in a sin­gle gene — en­com­pass­ing der­ma­tol­ogy, car­di­ol­o­gy, neu­rol­o­gy, en­docrinol­o­gy, re­nal dis­ease, and oph­thal­mol­o­gy — and can­cers with clear ge­net­ic dri­vers. The start­up mill birthed a pletho­ra of firms such as Ei­dos, Navire, QED Ther­a­peu­tics and Pelle­Pharm, which func­tion as its sub­sidiaries.

As­traZeneca chal­lenges Roche on front­line SCLC af­ter seiz­ing an in­ter­im win — and Mer­ck may not be far be­hind

The crowded playing field in the PD-1/L1 marketing game is about to get a little more complex.

This morning AstraZeneca reported that its CASPIAN study delivered a hit in an interim readout for their PD-L1 Imfinzi combined with etoposide and platinum-based chemotherapy options for frontline cases of small cell lung cancer, a tough target which has already knocked back Bristol-Myers’ shot in second-line cases. The positive data  — which we won’t see before they roll it out at an upcoming scientific conference — give AstraZeneca excellent odds of a quick vault to challenging Roche’s Tecentriq-chemo combo, approved 3 months ago for frontline SCLC in a landmark advance.

“This is the first trial offering the flexibility of combining immunotherapy with different platinum-based regimens in small cell lung cancer, expanding treatment options,” noted AstraZeneca cancer R&D chief José Baselga in a statement.

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Af­ter rais­ing $158M, this up­start's founders have star back­ers and plans to break new ground in gene ther­a­py

Back in 2014, Stephanie Tagliatela opted to take an early exit out of her PhD program after working in Mark Bear’s lab at MIT, where she specialized in the synaptic connections between neuronal cells in the brain. She never finished that PhD, but she and fellow MIT student Kartik Ramamoorthi — who was on the founding team at Voyager — came away with some ideas for a gene therapy startup.

Today, fully 5 years later, she and Ramamoorthi are taking the wraps off of a $104 million mega-round designed to take the cumulative work of their preclinical formative stage for Encoded Therapeutics into human studies. They’ve now raised $158 million since starting out in Illumina’s incubator in the Bay Area, and they believe they are firmly on track to do something unique in gene therapy.

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Sanofi/Re­gen­eron mus­cle ahead of a ri­val No­var­tis/Roche team, win first ap­proval in key rhi­nos­i­nusi­tis field

Re­gen­eron and their part­ners at Sanofi have beat the No­var­tis/Roche team to the punch on an­oth­er key in­di­ca­tion for their block­buster an­ti-in­flam­ma­to­ry drug Dupix­ent. The drug team scored an ac­cel­er­at­ed FDA ap­proval for chron­ic rhi­nos­i­nusi­tis with nasal polyps, mak­ing this the first such NDA for the field.

An­a­lysts have been watch­ing this race for awhile now, as Sanofi/Re­gen­eron won a snap pri­or­i­ty re­view for what is now their third dis­ease in­di­ca­tion for this treat­ment. And they’re not near­ly done, build­ing up hopes for a ma­jor fran­chise.

Novotech CEO Dr. John Moller

Novotech CRO Award­ed Frost & Sul­li­van Best Biotech CRO Asia-Pa­cif­ic 2019

Known in the in­dus­try as the Asia-Pa­cif­ic CRO, Novotech is now lead CRO ser­vices provider for the grow­ing num­ber of in­ter­na­tion­al biotechs se­lect­ing the re­gion for their stud­ies.

Re­flect­ing this Asia-Pa­cif­ic growth, Novotech staff num­bers are up 20% since De­cem­ber 2018 to 600 in-house clin­i­cal re­search peo­ple across a full range of ser­vices, across the re­gion.

Novotech’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties have been rec­og­nized by an­a­lysts like Frost & Sul­li­van, most re­cent­ly with the pres­ti­gious Asia-Pa­cif­ic CRO Biotech of the year award for best prac­tices in clin­i­cal re­search for biotechs for the fifth year. See oth­er awards here.

Image: Chris Varma. Frontier

UP­DAT­ED: Chris Var­ma un­veils MP­M's lat­est start­up — eye­ing 'un­drug­gable' can­cer tar­gets and pow­ered by ma­chine learn­ing, $67M

Two years af­ter MPM Cap­i­tal en­list­ed Chris Var­ma on its busy on­col­o­gy team, the for­mer en­tre­pre­neur-in-res­i­dence is un­veil­ing his first ven­ture project out of his new stomp­ing grounds in the Bay Area: Fron­tier Med­i­cines.

For Var­ma, who’s al­so co-found­ed Blue­print Med­i­cines and built com­pa­nies at Third Rock and Flag­ship, this marks an­oth­er op­por­tu­ni­ty to ap­ply some cut­ting-edge sci­ence to “sev­er­al of the most im­por­tant and dif­fi­cult tar­gets in can­cer” — tar­gets that oth­ers have tried to tack­le with more clas­si­cal meth­ods and failed. The launch round comes in at $67 mil­lion, which should go some way in scaf­fold­ing a pre­clin­i­cal pipeline and push one or more as­sets in­to the clin­ic three years from now, he tells me.

Richard Gonzalez testifying in front of Senate Finance Committee, February 2019 [AP Images]

Ab­b­Vie's $63B buy­out spot­lights the re­turn of ma­jor M&A deals — de­spite the back­lash

Big time M&A is back. But for how long?

Over the past 18 months we’ve now seen three major buyouts announced: Takeda/Shire; Bristol-Myers/Celgene and now AbbVie/Allergan. And with this latest deal it’s increasingly clear that the sharp fall from grace suffered by high-profile players which have seen their share prices blasted has created an opening for the growth players in big pharma to up their game — in sharp contrast to the popular bolt-on deals that have been driving the growth strategy at Novartis, Merck, Roche and others.

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