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.

Nick Galakatos, Blackstone global head of life sciences

Nick Galakatos and the Black­stone team now have a record $4.6B to in­vest in bio­phar­ma, with a big fo­cus on push­ing com­pa­nies over the top

Nick Galakatos and his team at Blackstone Life Sciences have seen their biggest opportunities swell up in mostly established players who don’t have all the money they need to accomplish everything on the to-do list. And right now, with the industry booming, that’s a long list with some hefty needs.

The Blackstone team has neatly tied up the largest private fund ever raised in life sciences for making big dreams come true in biopharma. Late Thursday, Blackstone put out word that they had closed their highly anticipated fund with the projected $4.6 billion all in.

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UP­DAT­ED: Bio­gen shares spike as ex­ecs com­plete a de­layed pitch for their con­tro­ver­sial Alzheimer's drug — the next move be­longs to the FDA

Biogen is stepping out onto the high wire today, reporting that the team working on the controversial Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab has now completed their submission to the FDA. And they want the agency to bless it with a priority review that would cut the agency’s decision-making time to a mere 6 months.

The news drove a 10% spike in Biogen’s stock $BIIB ahead of the bell.

Part of that spike can be attributed to a relief rally. Biogen execs rattled backers and a host of analysts earlier in the year when they unexpectedly delayed their filing to the third quarter. That delay provoked all manner of speculation after CEO Michel Vounatsos and R&D chief Al Sandrock failed to persuade influential observers that the pandemic and other factors had slowed the timeline for filing. Actually making the pitch at least satisfies skeptics that the FDA was not likely pushing back as Biogen was pushing in. From the start, Biogen execs claimed that they were doing everything in cooperation with the FDA, saying that regulators had signaled their interest in reviewing the submission.

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Gilead boasts of pos­i­tive remde­sivir da­ta on mor­tal­i­ty — but their analy­sis pro­vokes the skep­tics

Gilead is surging again off data that suggest its antiviral remdesivir might improve survival.

The new data come from an analysis Gilead conducted comparing the death rate and recovery time of patients in one of its remdesivir trials to a group of 800 patients “with similar baseline characteristics and disease severity” who received only standard-of-care around the same time. The result, they said, suggested that patients who received remdesivir had a 62% better chance at surviving than those who did not.

Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer speaks at a meeting with President Donald Trump, members of the Coronavirus Task Force, and pharmaceutical executives in the Cabinet Room of the White House (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

OWS shifts spot­light to drugs to fight Covid-19, hand­ing Re­gen­eron $450M to be­gin large scale man­u­fac­tur­ing in the US

The US government is on a spending spree. And after committing billions to vaccines defense operations are now doling out more of the big bucks through Operation Warp Speed to back a rapid flip of a drug into the market to stop Covid-19 from ravaging patients — possibly inside of 2 months.

The beneficiary this morning is Regeneron, the big biotech engaged in a frenzied race to develop an antibody cocktail called REGN-COV2 that just started a late-stage program to prove its worth in fighting the virus. BARDA and the Department of Defense are awarding Regeneron a $450 million contract to cover bulk delivery of the cocktail starting as early as late summer, with money added for fill/finish and storage activities.

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Top biotech an­a­lyst projects a gloomy out­look for Pfiz­er's JAK port­fo­lio

Many in the pharma world are hoping — better yet, expecting — JAK inhibitors to provide one of the next big boons for the industry. Few have invested as heavily in this area as Pfizer, which boasts a portfolio including Xeljanz and at least five mid-to-late stage candidates in the pipeline.

But a top Wall Street analyst is pumping the brakes on just how much good fortune is in store for the Big Pharma.

Hal Barron, GSK

Win or lose on the mar­ket­ing OK, the FDA just gunned down GSK’s bright hopes for their BC­MA ther­a­py

The FDA’s ODAC — the Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee — has a well-known bias in favor of adding new cancer drugs to the market, even if efficacy is at best marginal and serious safety issues demand careful management.

Doctors want as many arrows in their quiver as they can get. And when patients are dying after failing multiple drugs, why not give it a go one more time?

GlaxoSmithKline, though, is about to test out how their new BCMA antibody drug conjugate belantamab mafodotin can do after being mauled in an in-house FDA review, ahead of the Tuesday expert panel discussion. Even if the agency goes ahead with an expected green light, this drug will likely be constrained to a small niche — icing any plans they may have for making waves in oncology anytime soon.

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Covid-19 roundup: BioN­Tech go­ing head-to-head with Mod­er­na as PhI­II mR­NA launch looms; Tri­al on Shin­zo Abe’s once-fa­vorite an­tivi­ral is in­con­clu­sive

It’s a race to the Phase III finish line now for the 2 leading mRNA vaccines in the pipeline for Covid-19.

BioNTech chief Ugur Sahin told the Wall Street Journal that his company will start Phase III testing of their vaccine later this month, setting them up to lateral the data to regulators before the end of this year.

That puts them essentially on the exact same schedule as Moderna is dedicated to. The Massachusetts rival to BioNTech also expects to launch Phase III this month. Lots of rumors have circulated about delays and conflict among the scientists advancing the Moderna jab, but the biotech has consistently stuck to its plan to start a late-stage pivotal this month.

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Andrew Kruegel, Kures president and co-founder (Columbia Tech Ventures via Vimeo)

Af­ter psilo­cy­bin and ke­t­a­mine, a new biotech comes along de­vel­op­ing a drug Scott Got­tlieb fought

Andrew Kruegel was six years into his chemistry work at Columbia University, when, one day in August 2016, he learned he might have only 30 days before the government made him destroy his research.

Kruegel had been studying kratom, a leaf long used in Southeast Asia as a stimulant or for pain. It had opioid-like properties, he found, but seemed to offer pain relief without the addictive potential or respiratory side effects of traditional opioids — a riddle that might help illuminate how human opioid receptors work.

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The home run count: The $100M+ mega-round boom in biotech in­spired a $7.3B feed­ing fren­zy — so far this year

Over the last 6 months there’s been a blizzard of money piling up drifts of the green stuff through the biotech landscape. And the forecast calls for more cash windfalls ahead.

Even as a global pandemic has killed more than half a million people, blighted economies and divided nations over the proper response, it’s also helped ignite an unprecedented burst of big-time investing. And not just in Covid-19 deals, as we’ve looked at before.

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