Eli Lil­ly jumps in­to a $473M hunt with Sig­ilon for the Holy Grail in di­a­betes cell ther­a­pies

Stem cell ther­a­pies have gone through every stage of the long and painful hype cy­cle for emerg­ing drug tech­nolo­gies: Start­ing with wild­ly in­flat­ed ear­ly ex­pec­ta­tions through bit­ter dis­il­lu­sion­ment, a trough of de­spair and on to a slow and pa­tient re­cov­ery brought about by years of dili­gent re­search work in the lab.

Paul Wot­ton, who’s seen it all, be­lieves he can now see the off-the-shelf cell prod­ucts of the fu­ture — en­cap­su­lat­ed in what they’ve dubbed Afi­bromer plat­form tech — tak­ing shape at the end of the new­ly ris­ing curve.

As the found­ing CEO at Flag­ship-seed­ed Sig­ilon, a start­up launched last year in Cam­bridge, MA with a $23.5 mil­lion round, he’s now un­veil­ing one of the fi­nal re­main­ing pieces nec­es­sary for a come­back: An al­liance with a Big Phar­ma part­ner.

To­day Sig­ilon is an­nounc­ing a $473 mil­lion pact with Eli Lil­ly — which is step­ping out un­der a bold­er R&D chief in Dan Skovron­sky — to dri­ve their stem cell work on Type 1 di­a­betes in­to the clin­ic, with $63 mil­lion of that in an up­front and the rest divvied up with a goal of ful­ly fund­ing the de­vel­op­ment of a durable new ther­a­py for the dis­ease. Eli Lil­ly is al­so mak­ing an undis­closed eq­ui­ty in­vest­ment in the com­pa­ny.

“I think we’ve kind of dis­cov­ered the Holy Grail to make cell ther­a­py a re­al­i­ty,” says Wot­ton. 

While re­searchers fig­ured out a long time ago how to get stem cells to trans­form in­to in­sulin pro­duc­ing pan­cre­at­ic be­ta cells for di­a­bet­ics, get­ting them in­to the body to do their work with­out trig­ger­ing a se­vere im­mune re­ac­tion has been an in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cle.

Bob Langer

But af­ter test­ing new tech out of the labs of MIT’s Bob Langer and Daniel An­der­son in ro­dents as well as non-hu­man pri­mates, Sig­ilon be­lieves it’s with­in a cou­ple of years of start­ing work on a hu­man clin­i­cal tri­al — a ma­jor step to­ward ob­tain­ing clear proof-of-con­cept da­ta. They be­lieve they can de­liv­er islet cells to the body, and keep it hid­den from the im­mune sys­tem, pre­vent­ing fi­bro­sis that can choke cells of nu­tri­tion and oxy­gen. And while they are now pi­o­neer­ing a ground­break­ing field, there are sol­id pre­clin­i­cal rea­sons to be­lieve that they can make the hur­dle in hu­mans.

“Bob Langer’s team screened 600 mol­e­cules that could evade the im­mune sys­tem,” says Wot­ton. And they be­lieve they are on to the kind of en­cap­su­lat­ed cell-based ther­a­pies that can be de­liv­ered in wa­ter sol­u­ble poly­mers — Langer’s sweet spot in the lab — nec­es­sary for de­vis­ing a ther­a­py that could cre­ate a re­li­able sup­ply of in­sulin for pa­tients.

They’re not alone here. Har­vard spin­out Sem­ma re­cent­ly gar­nered a $114 mil­lion megaround to see if their “tea bag” tech for pro­duc­ing in­sulin can do the same thing.

It won’t be quick. There’s no hard time­line on the di­a­betes side, but Sig­ilon is with­in a cou­ple of years of mov­ing a pro­gram in­to the clin­ic us­ing the same tech plat­form to spawn fac­tor VI­II and IX for he­mo­phil­ia pa­tients. And that could help pave the way to a clin­i­cal study in di­a­betes soon af­ter.

“What we have is plat­form tech­nol­o­gy that you can ap­ply to any al­lo­gene­ic (off the shelf) cell line,” says Wot­ton, “pro­gram cells to man­u­fac­ture fac­tor VI­II or IX, or man­u­fac­ture an­ti­bod­ies, with an abil­i­ty to avoid de­tec­tion of the im­mune sys­tem.”

One way to think of it, he says, is as a kind of “gene ther­a­py in a box,” able to ex­press two pro­teins with an op­tion of top­ping up the dose if need­ed lat­er.

How long will that kind of ther­a­py last? Wot­ton doesn’t know the an­swer to that yet, but he’s gam­bling that it’s years rather than months. And Eli Lil­ly, which is in­creas­ing their bet on bold re­search gam­bles, wants to come along for the ride.

This is a big deal for the cell ther­a­py field in re­gen­er­a­tive med­i­cine, as the big play­ers large­ly bowed out of the are­na years ago, sat­is­fied that they were far, far away from any com­mer­cial pro­grams. Eli Lil­ly’s re­turn, along­side a same-day move by Roche we are re­port­ing now, could be an­oth­er sign that the hype cy­cle is fi­nal­ly en­ter­ing the be­gin­ning of the end.

The FDA will hus­tle up an ex­pe­dit­ed re­view for As­traZeneca’s next shot at a block­buster can­cer drug fran­chise

AstraZeneca paid a hefty price to partner with Daiichi Sankyo on their experimental antibody drug conjugate for HER2 positive breast cancer. And they’ve been rewarded with a fast ride through the FDA, with a straight shot at creating another blockbuster oncology franchise.

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Sean Parker, AP

Sean Park­er helps cre­ate a CRISPRed cell ther­a­py 2.0 play — and he’s got a high-pro­file set of lead­ers on the team

You can rack up one more high-profile debut effort in the wave of activity forming around cell therapy 2.0. It’s another appealing Bay Area group that’s attracted some of the top hands in the business to a multi-year effort to create a breakthrough. And they have $85 million in hand to make that first big step to the clinic.

Today it’s Ken Drazan and the team at South San Francisco-based ArsenalBio that are coming from behind the curtain for a public bow, backed by billionaire Sean Parker and a collection of investors that includes Beth Seidenberg’s new venture investment operation based in LA.
Drazan — a J&J Innovation vet with a long record of entrepreneurial endeavors — exited the stage in 2018 when his last mission ended as he stepped aside as president of Grail. It wasn’t long, though, before he was helping out with a business plan for ArsenalBio that revolved around the work of a large group of interconnected scientists supported by the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunology.
The biotech started by putting together an “arsenal” of technologies aimed at making cell therapies for cancer much, much better than the rather crude first-generation drugs that hit the market from Novartis and Kite.
Their drugs have become the baseline against which all others are being measured.
“The technology set we’re developing is independent of the chassis,” Drazan tells me. “It doesn’t have to be autologous (extracted from the patient) or allogeneic (off the shelf). It doesn’t have to be a T cell, it could be a B cell.” But they are starting out on the autologous side, where they have the most knowledge and insight into manufacturing techniques.
It also doesn’t have to be close to the clinic.
Drazan expects the biotech will be working its way through preclinical operations for “a few years,” with enough money from the $85 million launch round to get into humans.
By today’s superheated fundraising standards, that’s not a huge amount of cash. Lyell, another cell therapy 2.0 startup we featured last week, raised $600 million in a year, including a big chunk of cash from GlaxoSmithKline. Drazan is interested in dealmaking as well, but he also knows he has the cash necessary to support the company for a good run — a key part of what it takes to bring together a stellar team of top players.

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Eli Lil­ly’s first PhI­II show­down for their $1.6B can­cer drug just flopped — what now?

When Eli Lilly plunked down $1.6 billion in cash to acquire Armo Biosciences a little more than a year ago, the stars seemed aligned in its favor. The jewel in the crown they were buying was pegilodecakin, which had cleared the proof-of-concept stage and was already in a Phase III trial for pancreatic cancer.

And that study just failed.

Lilly reported this morning that their cancer drug flopped on overall survival when added to FOLFOX (folinic acid, 5-FU, oxaliplatin), compared to FOLFOX alone among patients suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer.

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Swamy Vijayan. Plexium

San Diego up­start de­buts dis­cov­ery en­gine that puts a twist to pro­tein degra­da­tion

For years, the idea of protein degradation — utilizing the cell’s natural garbage disposal system to mark problematic proteins for destruction — remained an elegant but technically difficult concept. But now established as a promising clinical strategy, with major biopharma players such as Bayer, Gilead and Vertex trying to grab a foothold via partnership deals, a San Diego startup is looking to exploit it and push its limits.

CSL ac­cus­es ri­val Pharm­ing of par­tic­i­pat­ing in a scheme to rip off IP on HAE while re­cruit­ing se­nior R&D staffer

Pharming has landed in the middle of a legal donnybrook after recruiting a senior executive from a rival R&D team at CSL. The Australian pharma giant slapped Pharming with a lawsuit alleging that the Dutch biotech’s new employee, Joseph Chiao, looted a large cache of proprietary documents as he hit the exit. And they want it all back.
Federal Judge Juan Sanchez in the Eastern District Pennsylvania court issued an injunction on Tuesday prohibiting Chiao from doing any work on HAE or primary immune deficiency in his new job and demanding that he return any material from CSL that he may have in his possession. And he wants Pharming to tell its employees not to ask for any information on the forbidden topics.
For its part, Pharming fired off an indignant response this morning denying any involvement in extracting any kind of IP from CSL, adding that it’s cooperating in the internal probe that CSL has underway.

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Hal Barron, GSK's president of R&D and CSO, speaks to Endpoints News founder and editor John Carroll in London at Endpoints' #UKBIO19 summit on October 8, 2019

[Video] Cel­e­brat­ing tri­al fail­ures, chang­ing the cul­ture and al­ly­ing with Cal­i­for­nia dream­ers: R&D chief Hal Bar­ron talks about a new era at GSK

Last week I had a chance to sit down with Hal Barron at Endpoints’ #UKBIO19 summit to discuss his views on R&D at GSK, a topic that has been central to his life since he took the top research post close to 2 years ago. During the conversation, Barron talked about changing the culture at GSK, a move that involves several new approaches — one of which involves celebrating their setbacks as they shift resources to the most promising programs in the pipeline. Barron also discussed his new alliances in the Bay Area — including his collaboration pact with Lyell, which we covered here — frankly assesses the pluses and minuses of the UK drug development scene, and talks about his plans for making GSK a much more effective drug developer.

This is one discussion you won’t want to miss. Insider and Enterprise subscribers can log-in to watch the video.

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Med­ical an­i­ma­tion: Mak­ing it eas­i­er for the site and the pa­tient to un­der­stand

Medical animation has in recent years become an increasingly important tool for conveying niche information to a varied audience, particularly to those audiences without expertise in the specialist area. Science programmes today, for example, have moved from the piece-to-camera of the university professor explaining how a complex disease mechanism works, to actually showing the viewer first-hand what it might look like to shrink ourselves down to the size of an ant’s foot, and travel inside the human body to witness these processes in action. Effectively communicating a complex disease pathophysiology, or the novel mechanism of action of a new drug, can be complex. This is especially difficult when the audience domain knowledge is limited or non-existent. Medical animation can help with this communication challenge in several ways.
Improved accessibility to visualisation
Visualisation is a core component of our ability to understand a concept. Ask 10 people to visualise an apple, and each will come up with a slightly different image, some apples smaller than others, some more round, some with bites taken. Acceptable, you say, we can move on to the next part of the story. Now ask 10 people to visualise how HIV’s capsid protein gets arranged into the hexamers and pentamers that form the viral capsid that holds HIV’s genetic material. This request may pose a challenge even to someone with some virology knowledge, and it is that inability to effectively visualise what is going on that holds us back from fully understanding the rest of the story. So how does medical animation help us to overcome this visualisation challenge?

UP­DAT­ED: Alex­ion pays $930M to buy out Achillion and its promis­ing com­pan­ion drug to Soliris

After a series of stock-crunching setbacks over the years, Achillion enjoyed a turn in the sun a few weeks ago as the FDA blessed their lead drug danicopan (ACH-4471) — a complementary therapy for PNH patients taking Alexion’s Soliris — with a breakthrough drug designation after taking a look at some solid supporting Phase II data.

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The $102B club: The top 15 R&D spenders in the glob­al bio­phar­ma busi­ness — 2019 edi­tion

Over the past few years, the deluge of capital into biotech has helped lead to a dramatic shift in focus on new drug approvals, as startups are now able to raise enough cash to get through a pivotal and onto the market. But the top 15 players still account for $102 billion in spending, and their successes and failures continue to determine just how productive the industry is.

Recently we’ve seen a number of new R&D chiefs take their places at the Big 15, either setting the stage for a more focused R&D strategy — often playing more heavily in oncology. That’s true for AstraZeneca, which has had some landmark successes, and GSK, which is in search of its own turnaround in pharma R&D. HIV and vaccines are separate from that group, now led by Hal Barron.

I’ve made a point of watching their track record every year for more than a decade now. What follows is intended as a broad gauge of their activity. You don’t have to have a lot of major successes to score a winning record here, but it’s virtually impossible without a blockbuster or three in the pipeline.

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