Se­nior R&D ex­ec Sue Dil­lon jumps ship at J&J, launch­es mys­tery biotech start­up Aro with Cen­tyrins tech

Two for­mer ex­ec­u­tive heavy­weights at John­son & John­son have left the phar­ma gi­ant to launch a rather stealthy start­up called Aro Bio­ther­a­peu­tics – and they are start­ing out with some drug tech they’re al­ready close­ly fa­mil­iar with.

Karyn O’Neil

The com­pa­ny’s pres­i­dent and CEO is Sue Dil­lon, an R&D cham­pi­on and the ex-glob­al ther­a­peu­tic area head for im­munol­o­gy in the Janssen Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals unit of J&J. Her co-founder and CSO is Karyn O’Neil, the for­mer ven­ture leader for Cen­tyrex, an­oth­er J&J unit.

The com­pa­ny is fly­ing deeply un­der the radar, with vir­tu­al­ly no web pres­ence aside from Bio­Cen­tu­ry’s news of Aro’s launch. Dil­lon did not im­me­di­ate­ly re­spond to our re­quest for more in­fo on the com­pa­ny, but here’s what we do know:

Aro is work­ing with a nov­el class of al­ter­na­tive scaf­fold mol­e­cules called Cen­tyrins, which can be en­gi­neered to bind to tar­get pro­teins with an in­ter­face of sim­i­lar size to those used by an­ti­bod­ies. This tech was be­ing de­vel­oped at Cen­tyrex (the J&J unit where O’Neil, the in­ven­tor of the Cen­tyrin plat­form, pre­vi­ous­ly worked), and that plat­form has been li­censed out to two can­cer com­pa­nies: On­tario-based Fu­sion Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and San Diego-based Po­sei­da Ther­a­peu­tics, the lat­ter of which was housed in J&J’s San Diego JLABs back in 2015. Fu­sion is de­vel­op­ing Cen­tyrin-based al­pha-par­ti­cle ra­dio­ther­a­peu­tics, and Po­sei­da is de­vel­op­ing au­tol­o­gous T cell and NK cell ther­a­pies that ex­press Cen­tyrins or Cen­tyrin CAR mol­e­cules.

Ac­cord­ing to J&J: “Aro Bio­ther­a­peu­tics has ex­clu­sive world­wide rights to the Cen­tyrin IP es­tate with Janssen re­served fields in­clud­ing and pur­suant to Fu­sion Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals Inc. and Po­sei­da Ther­a­peu­tics Inc.”

Dil­lon and O’Neil join the great mi­gra­tion out of Big Phar­ma and in­to small biotech, as es­teemed R&D lead­ers in­creas­ing­ly seek op­por­tu­ni­ties else­where. O’Neil re­tired from her role at Cen­tyrex back in De­cem­ber, ac­cord­ing to her LinkedIn, to co-found Aro with Dil­lon. As for Dil­lon, she left her role at J&J around the same time.

New­man Yeild­ing

“Hav­ing sup­port­ed Sue for many years dur­ing her tenure here at Janssen/J&J, I have a great deal of re­spect for her lead­er­ship, vi­sion and de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­tin­ue to make a dif­fer­ence in pa­tients’ lives and in the life sci­ences in­dus­try,” wrote J&J’s glob­al ther­a­peu­tic area com­mu­ni­ca­tion leader Bri­an Ken­ney in an email.

Ken­ney not­ed that Dil­lon re­tired from J&J af­ter a “16 year suc­cess­ful ca­reer” with the com­pa­ny.

Ken­ney says New­man Yeild­ing, head of im­munol­o­gy de­vel­op­ment at Janssen, is lead­ing the ther­a­peu­tic area for im­munol­o­gy un­til the com­pa­ny finds a re­place­ment for Dil­lon.


Im­age: Sue Dil­lon. Janssen

Biotech Half­time Re­port: Af­ter a bumpy year, is biotech ready to re­bound?

The biotech sector has come down firmly from the highs of February as negative sentiment takes hold. The sector had a major boost of optimism from the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, making investors keenly aware of the potential of biopharma R&D engines. But from early this year, clinical trial, regulatory and access setbacks have reminded investors of the sector’s inherent risks.

RBC Capital Markets recently surveyed investors to take the temperature of the market, a mix of specialists/generalists and long-only/ long-short investment strategies. Heading into the second half of the year, investors mostly see the sector as undervalued (49%), a large change from the first half of the year when only 20% rated it as undervalued. Around 41% of investors now believe that biotech will underperform the S&P500 in the second half of 2021. Despite that view, 54% plan to maintain their position in the market and 41% still plan to increase their holdings.

David Livingston (Credit: Michael Sazel for CeMM)

Renowned Dana-Far­ber sci­en­tist, men­tor and bio­phar­ma ad­vi­sor David Liv­ingston has died

David Livingston, the Dana-Farber/Harvard Med scientist who helped shine a light on some of the key molecular drivers of breast and ovarian cancer, died unexpectedly last Sunday.

One of the senior leaders at Dana-Farber during his nearly half century of work there, Livingston was credited with shedding light on the genes that regulate cell growth, with insights into inherited BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations that helped lay the scientific foundation for targeted therapies and earlier detection that have transformed the field.

No­vo CEO Lars Fruer­gaard Jør­gensen on R&D risk, the deal strat­e­gy and tar­gets for gen­der di­ver­si­ty

 

I kicked off our European R&D summit last week with a conversation involving Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen. Novo is aiming to launch a new era of obesity management with a new approval for semaglutide. And Jørgensen had a lot to say about what comes next in R&D, how they manage risk and gender diversity targets at the trendsetting European pharma giant.

John Carroll: I’m here with Lars Jørgensen, the CEO of Novo Nordisk. Lars, it’s been a really interesting year so far with Novo Nordisk, right? You’ve projected a new era of growing sales. You’ve been able to expand on the GLP-1 franchise that was already well established in diabetes now going into obesity. And I think a tremendous number of people are really interested in how that’s working out. You have forecast a growing amount of sales. We don’t know specifically how that might play out. I know a lot of the analysts have different ideas, how those numbers might play out, but that we are in fact embarking on a new era for Novo Nordisk in terms of what the company’s capable of doing and what it’s able to do and what it wants to do. And I wanted to start off by asking you about obesity in particular. Semaglutide has been approved in the United States for obesity. It’s an area of R&D that’s been very troubled for decades. There have been weight loss drugs that have come along. They’ve attracted a lot of attention, but they haven’t actually ever gained traction in the market. My first question is what’s different this time about obesity? What is different about this drug and why do you expect it to work now whereas previous drugs haven’t?

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Man­u­fac­tur­ing woes for No­vavax’s Covid jab bad­ly dis­rupt plans for roll­out to the poor — re­port

Production problems at a Novavax facility in Maryland have led to delays in the Covax vaccine sharing program. Now, a shortage of 1 billion doses is expected, as the supplier tries to navigate producing a shot up to regulators’ standards, Politico reported Tuesday.

The company has run into trouble with the purity of the vaccine. Novavax has had trouble proving it can produce a shot consistently up to standards, and it has caused significant delays in the rollout to low- and middle-income countries. This follows several delays at Novavax that has put the executive crew on the defensive.

Sur­geons suc­cess­ful­ly at­tach pig kid­ney to a hu­man for the first time, us­ing tech from Unit­ed's Re­vivi­cor

In a first, researchers reportedly successfully transplanted a pig kidney into a human without triggering an immediate immune response this week. And the technology came from the biotech United Therapeutics.

Surgeons spent three days attaching the kidney to the patient’s blood vessels, but when all was said and done, the kidney appeared to be functioning normally in early testing, Reuters and the New York Times were among those to report. The kidney came from a genetically altered pig developed through United’s Revivicor unit.

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Michel Vounatsos, Biogen CEO (Credit: World Economic Forum/Valeriano Di Domenico)

Up­dat­ed: Bio­gen sells just $300K worth of Aduhelm in Q3, as ques­tions on long-term vi­a­bil­i­ty re­main

Barely anyone is accessing Biogen’s controversial Alzheimer’s treatment, with the company reporting just $0.3 million in Aduhelm sales in the third quarter. Although investors will be looking to the longer term, when CMS may decide to cover the drug and open the floodgates for more reimbursement, use of the drug is currently stalled.

Since June, when the FDA first signed off on the drug under its accelerated pathway, Biogen said Wednesday that it’s sold a total of $2 million worth of Aduhelm. That’s a far cry from the peak Wall Street sales estimate of about $9 billion in annual sales.

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With hun­dreds of mil­lions spent on failed ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­provals, re­searchers call for faster FDA with­drawals

Between 2017 and 2019, Medicare spent more than $220 million on cancer drugs for which the indications were either voluntarily pulled by their applicants or FDA’s oncology adcomm had recommended their withdrawal.

That kind of massive spending on cancer drugs lacking overall survival benefit is wasteful and risks harming people’s health, a research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine on Monday said. The researchers from Harvard and the London School of Economics called on the FDA to move faster in both requiring timely postmarketing trials and accelerating the speed in pulling these dangling approvals when the confirmatory studies fail.

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Bill Gates at the Global Investment Summit in London, Oct. 19, 2021 (Leon Neal/Pool via AP Images)

Gates Foun­da­tion pledges $120M to ramp up gener­ic sup­ply of Mer­ck­'s Covid-19 pill while ac­tivists blast Pfiz­er's dis­pro­por­tion­ate pow­er

Merck’s molnupiravir may not be officially authorized anywhere in the world yet, but who will get access to it has shaped up to be a huge issue. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now stepping up to ensure lower-income countries won’t be left behind — and calling on others to follow its lead.

The oral antiviral pill, which was shown to dramatically cut the risk of severe Covid-19 disease and death in a Phase III study, is the latest rallying symbol in the battle against not just the coronavirus but the inequality it’s exposed.

Raymond Stevens, ShouTi Pharma CEO

A new Schrödinger-backed start­up emerges from the sci­en­tist who mapped the first hu­man GPCR

One of the most popular targets in drug development, representing about a third of existing drugs, are G-protein coupled receptors — the tiny but integral membrane proteins responsible for recognizing things like light, taste, smell, hormones and pain.

But due to challenges in mapping their structure, the protein family remains largely unexplored.

A slate of companies has emerged over the last few years to change that. If one can figure out the structure of these elusive membrane receptors, it might be possible to create small molecule drugs that overcome the limitations of, say, biologic and peptide therapies. That promise is what gets serial entrepreneur Raymond Stevens out of bed in the morning.