Ex-Re­cep­tos CTO co-founds SD start­up Escient, launch­ing with $40M Se­ries A

Af­ter the whop­ping $7.2 bil­lion sale of his last ven­ture, Re­cep­tos, to Cel­gene back in 2015, Mar­cus Boehm wasn’t sup­posed to start an­oth­er com­pa­ny. He was go­ing to take a back­seat, for once. Con­sult. Be on a few boards.

“I’ve been in­volved in three com­pa­nies since found­ing stages, and I was not in­tend­ing to do this again,” Boehm tells me.

Now, he and an­oth­er biotech big shot in San Diego are join­ing forces to launch a rather am­bi­tious start­up, step­ping out Wednes­day with a $40 mil­lion Se­ries A round.

Mar­cus Boehm

You might know Boehm’s name from his time at San Diego’s Re­cep­tos, where he was co-founder and chief tech­nol­o­gy of­fi­cer un­til Cel­gene’s pur­chase. Be­fore that, he was at Con­for­ma un­til it was bought by Bio­gen. Af­ter Re­cep­tos’ sale, Boehm had in­ten­tions of kick­ing back for a while.

But then Alain Baron came along, and he in­tro­duced Boehm to dis­cov­er­ies made by Johns Hop­kins neu­ro­sci­en­tist Xinzhong Dong. To­geth­er, the three of them co-found­ed Escient Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, a new San Diego-based com­pa­ny that plans to cre­ate an en­tire­ly new class of drugs.

Boehm said it was this — the al­lure of dis­cov­ery-stage sci­ence — that drew him back in­to the start­up game. If it was a com­pa­ny fur­ther along in de­vel­op­ment, he’d have like­ly passed.

“In many ways, a com­pound will live or die by its prop­er­ties,” Boehm said. “Once it’s in Phase II, there’s not much you can af­fect. If it has tox­i­c­i­ty, for ex­am­ple, there’s not much you can do about it. The dis­cov­ery part is over, and it be­comes a high­ly-or­ches­trat­ed dance of de­vel­op­ment.”

Alain Baron

Boehm serves as Escient’s CSO, while Baron, the founder and for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of El­celyx, will head the start­up as CEO.

The com­pa­ny hopes to de­vel­op a pipeline of drugs around a nov­el fam­i­ly of G-pro­tein cou­pled re­cep­tors (GPCRs). GPCRs them­selves are a gi­ant pro­tein fam­i­ly of re­cep­tors that de­tect mol­e­cules out­side the cell and ac­ti­vate cel­lu­lar re­spons­es. If you had to make a wild guess about the tar­get of a cer­tain drug, your best bet is with GPCRs. They make up some­thing like 35% of all drugs on the mar­ket to­day, Baron said.

But Escient has its hands on tech from Dong’s lab on a nov­el fam­i­ly of Mas-re­lat­ed G-pro­tein re­cep­tors, which Baron said have the po­ten­tial to be a com­plete­ly new class of GCPR-tar­get­ed drugs.

“This is not like tak­ing a known tar­get and mak­ing a bet­ter drug or bring­ing an­oth­er med­i­cine to a dis­ease area that’s al­ready well-served,” Baron said. “We’re ac­tu­al­ly go­ing to bring very nov­el ther­a­pies to dis­eases that are un­served — and that’s in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing.”

Xinzhong Dong

Baron and Boehme aren’t dis­clos­ing much on their tech, but they did say Escient has nailed down two tar­gets in two in­di­ca­tions. The Se­ries A round — backed by The Col­umn Group, 5AM Ven­tures, and Os­age Uni­ver­si­ty Part­ners — will get the com­pa­ny to the end of 2021. Baron ex­pects the com­pa­ny to be in the clin­ic with one or two pro­grams by then.

In the com­ing months, Escient will be nail­ing down of­fice space for its head­quar­ters in San Diego, hir­ing 15 to 20 peo­ple, and fill­ing out their ex­ec­u­tive team, Baron said.

Grow­ing ac­cep­tance of ac­cel­er­at­ed path­ways for nov­el treat­ments: but does reg­u­la­to­ry ap­proval lead to com­mer­cial suc­cess?

By Mwango Kashoki, MD, MPH, Vice President-Technical, and Richard Macaulay, Senior Director, of Parexel Regulatory & Access

In recent years, we’ve seen a significant uptake in the use of regulatory options by companies looking to accelerate the journey of life-saving drugs to market. In 2018, 73% of the novel drugs approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) were designated under one or more expedited development program categories (Fast Track, Breakthrough Therapy, Priority Review, and Accelerated Approval).ᶦ

Sanofi out­lines big API plans as coro­n­avirus out­break re­port­ed­ly threat­ens short­age of 150 drugs

As the world becomes increasingly dependant on Asia for the ingredients of its medicines, Sanofi sees business to be done in Europe.

The French drugmaker said it’s creating the world’s second largest active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) manufacturer by spinning out its six current sites into a standalone company: Brindisi (Italy), Frankfurt Chemistry (Germany), Haverhill (UK), St Aubin les Elbeuf (France), Újpest (Hungary) and Vertolaye (France). They have mapped out €1 billion in expected sales by 2022 and 3,100 employees for the new operations headquartered in France.

UP­DAT­ED: NGM Bio takes leap for­ward in crowd­ed NASH field

South San Francisco-based NGM Bio may have underwhelmed with its interim analysis of a key cohort from a mid-stage NASH study last fall — but stellar topline data unveiled on Monday showed the compound induced significant signs of antifibrotic activity, NASH resolution and liver fat reduction, sending the company’s stock soaring.

There are an estimated 50+ companies focused on developing drugs for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, a common liver disease that has long flummoxed researchers. The first wave of NASH drug developers struggled with efficacy as well as safety — and companies big and small have crashed and burned.

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Mickey Kertesz, KidsandArtOrg via YouTube

Soft­Bank's newest, $165M biotech in­vest­ment looks for in­fec­tious traces in the blood

SoftBank has found its newest biotech investment.

The Japanese bank has invested $165 million into Karius, a company that uses blood tests to diagnose infectious diseases, as part of its new Vision Fund 2. The full scope of the new fund has yet to be announced, but the first and newly-beleaguered Vision Fund poured $100 billion into technology companies, including the biotechs Vir Biotechnology and Roivant and the sequencing company 10x Genomics.

Methicillin-resistant Staph aureus (Shutterstock)

FDA grants ‘break­through’ sta­tus to an­tibi­ot­ic al­ter­na­tive as Con­tra­Fect rush­es to join fight against su­per­bug

An experimental drug that promises to be the first anti-infective agent to prove superior to vancomycin — an antibiotic approved in 1958 — has notched the FDA’s “breakthrough” status.

ContraFect said the designation was based on Phase II data in which exebacase was tested against a superbug known as methicillin-resistant Staph aureus, or MRSA. In a subgroup analysis, the clinical responder rate at day 14 was 42.8% higher than that among those treated with standard of care, the company said (p=0.010).

Zhong Nanshan, CGTN via YouTube

Har­vard joins coro­n­avirus fight with $115 mil­lion and a high-pro­file Chi­nese part­ner

For two months, as the novel coronavirus swelled from a few early cases tied to a Wuhan market to a global epidemic, most of the world’s focus and dollars have flowed toward emergency initiatives: building vaccines at a record pace, plucking experimental antivirals out of freezers to see what sticks and immunizing mice for new antibodies.

Now a new and well-funded collaboration between Harvard and a top Chinese research institute will play the long game. In a 5-year, $115 million initiative backed by China Evergrande Group, researchers from the Harvard Medical School, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Guangzhou Institute for Respiratory Health will study the virus in an effort to develop therapies against infections by the novel coronavirus, known as SARS–CoV-2, and to prevent new ones.

No­var­tis gets a boost in block­buster mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis race with Roche

In the first step of what’s likely to be a long and uphill battle for the drugmaker, the FDA has accepted Novartis’s BLA submission for a new multiple sclerosis drug and given it priority review. The PDUFA date for the potential blockbuster drug is in June.

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Juergen Horn

An­i­mal health vet Juer­gen Horn makes new an­ti­body play for pets, rak­ing $15M in Se­ries A haul

Zoetis forked over $85 million in 2017 to acquire Nexvet Biopharma and its pipeline of monoclonal antibodies. Juergen Horn, Nexvet’s former chief product development officer, has now secured $15 million for his own biologic company for animals: Invetx.

Buoyed by emerging advances in gene therapies for humans, scientists have started looking at harnessing the technology for animals setting up companies such as Penn-partnered Scout Bio and George Church-founded Rejuvenate Bio. But akin to Nexvet, Invetx is working on leveraging the time-tested science of monoclonal antibodies to treat chronic diseases that afflict man’s best friend.

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As the coronavirus originating out of Wuhan spreads to South Korea, Italy and Iran, stoking already intense fears of a pandemic, GlaxoSmithKline has found another pair of trusted hands to place its adjuvant system. China’s Clover Biopharmaceuticals will add the adjuvant to its preclinical, protein-based vaccine candidate against SARS-CoV-2.

Clover, which is based in the inland city of Chengdu, boasts of a platform dubbed Trimer-Tag that produces covalently-trimerized fusion proteins. Its candidate, COVID-19 S-Trimer, resembles the viral spike (S)-protein found in the virus.