Kamel Khalili (Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University)

Ex­clu­sive: Af­ter four decades, one re­searcher's rad­i­cal HIV cure fi­nal­ly gets its shot

In the downtime between experiments, Kamel Khalili and his mentor traded their wildest ideas for curing HIV. It was the mid 1980s and Khalili was a postdoc at George Khoury’s National Cancer Institute lab, where he studied links between viruses and tumors, then one of the hottest fields in cancer research. But the epidemic was raging through New York and San Francisco, mounting the largest public health threat in decades. A couple buildings over, Robert Gallo was sequencing the virus for the first time. It felt impossible to stay away.

There was one idea Khalili couldn’t stop thinking about. HIV posed a unique challenge in part because it integrated itself into human DNA, coiling away from the body’s defenses. Khalili had spent his grad days tinkering with one of the earliest tools biologists invented to manipulate DNA inside a living cell. In fact, the first experiment he was assigned to when he moved from Tehran to Philadelphia as a 27-year-old graduate student was to take a bacteria-infecting virus and use it to inactivate a gene inside E. coli.

He wondered if he could do the same to the HIV genes inside a patient’s cells — an idea, he knew, was as ludicrous as it was elegant.

“Obviously the tool wasn’t there,” Khalili recalls. The tools they had struck DNA randomly, subjecting the recipient to a scattershot of genetic artillery. “You’d kill the patient.”

Then in 2012 came CRISPR, the so-called molecular scissors that could cut DNA wherever a researcher wanted. Khalili, who had risen to run a vast neuroscience department at Temple University without ever giving up on his youthful whim, rushing to examine a new gene editing tool whenever it appeared, got to work. Within a year and a half of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier’s Nobel-winning Science paper, he submitted a manuscript to The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that would send ripples through the HIV field.

He had taken CRISPR and used it to excise HIV out of human DNA. When he put it in HIV-infected mice a few years later, about a third were cured.

“I’ve been working on HIV for close to 40 years,” says Khalili. Now 69, he has an easy, avuncular laugh even over Zoom and large expressive eyebrows, though colleagues tell me he can have a far harder edge in the lab. “For the first time we realized a cure was possible.”

In November, Khalili gave the first evidence the approach could work in monkeys. Investors are now getting on board. Excision BioTherapeutics, the company founded around Khalili’s work, announced today a $50 million Series A to push the therapy into the clinic. If it works as intended, it could provide a long-sought single-shot cure for a virus that now infects 38 million people worldwide and set the stage for a similar approach for other chronic viruses, such as herpes and hepatitis B.

In a field already burned countless times, outside researchers are understandably cautious: CRISPR is a powerful tool, they say, but trying to excise all the viral DNA lurking in a patient’s cells is like trying to plumb an oil spill; there’s always a bit left, tucked in hard-to-reach places. Still, many were impressed he got this far, having discounted the approach years before. And they broadly agreed that Khalili may have invented one of the weapons for the multi-pronged assault they think will one day take down the virus.

The first test will come later this year, when a group of patients will be injected with Khalili’s therapy and, eventually, taken off the anti-retroviral medicines that have kept their infections at bay. If the infections don’t return, they will owe it to an immigrant scientist, who flung himself into a crisis much of his adopted country ignored and for four decades never let go of a brash and maybe even brilliant idea, even when the tools didn’t exist and the NIH told him it was impossible.

Skepticism still runs high, just not as high as when Khalili first started sketching out the idea to friends and colleagues on napkins nearly a decade ago.

“We have to be very careful,” says Fyodor Urnov, a gene editing expert at Cal-Berkeley who worked on early HIV gene editing studies. “But I think, overall, the field can move from hypothetical to realistic optimism.”

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Aduhelm OK 'bit­ter­sweet' for ALS ad­vo­cates; Con­trast­ing Covid-19 vac­cine read­outs; GSK joins TIG­IT bat­tle; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

With the busiest days of June now behind us, we’re starting to think seriously about the second half of the year. In August, we have scheduled a special report where Endpoints will compile a list of the 20 most influential R&D executives in biopharma. Know a luminary who should definitely be included? Nominate them now.

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In­side Track: Be­hind the Scenes of a Ma­jor Biotech SPAC

Dr. David Hung and Michelle Doig are no strangers to the SPAC phenomenon. As Founder and CEO of Nuvation Bio, a biotech company tackling some of the greatest unmet needs in oncology, Dr. Hung recently took the company public in one of this year’s biggest SPAC related deals. And as Partner at Omega Funds, Doig not only led and syndicated Nuvation Bio’s Series A, but is now also President of the newly formed, Omega-sponsored, Omega Alpha SPAC (Nasdaq: OMEG; oversubscribed $138m IPO priced January 6, 2021).

Michael Chambers (L) and John Ballantyne

Dana­her strikes deal to buy boom­ing next-gen man­u­fac­tur­er Alde­vron for $9.6B

Life sciences conglomerate Danaher Corp. $DHR has struck a deal to buy the fast-growing Aldevron, one of the world’s top manufacturers of hotly sought-after plasmid DNA, mRNA and recombinant proteins for the burgeoning world of vaccine and drugmakers pushing some game-changing technologies.

Buyout talks set the stage for Danaher to settle on a $9.6 billion cash pact to acquire the private Fargo, ND-based company — a key supplier for a disruptive new Covid vaccine as well as a host of gene and cell therapy and CRISPR gene editing players — founded by Michael Chambers and CSO John Ballantyne as a crew of 2 back in 1998.

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Who are the lu­mi­nar­ies dri­ving the biggest ad­vances in bio­phar­ma R&D? End­points News is ask­ing for your nom­i­na­tions for a spe­cial re­port

In biopharma, driving a drug to market is the ultimate goal — but none of that happens without a strong research and development program. At the most successful companies, those R&D efforts are spearheaded by true innovators in the field who are always looking for that next novel mechanism of action or breakthrough safety profile.

Now, Endpoints News is asking you to tell us who those guiding lights are.

Bris­tol My­ers breaks the bank on Ei­sai's fo­late re­cep­tor ADC drug, lay­ing out more than $3B+ for rights

For years, innovation in oncology has been a crapshoot with Big Pharma — the whales at the table — dropping the big bucks for the key to the next generation of tumor fighters. Bristol Myers Squibb hasn’t exactly made a name for being an innovator in the space, but that doesn’t mean it won’t splash in when it sees a potential winner.

Now, with a massive check in hand, the drugmaker is willing to put its intuition to the test.

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FDA's con­tro­ver­sial Aduhelm de­ci­sion leaves ALS pa­tients feel­ing spurned

The FDA’s controversial approval of Biogen’s Aduhelm drug for Alzheimer’s disease has been met with fierce resistance from all corners of the biopharma industry, but few seem to be as upset with the decision as ALS patients and advocacy groups.

For all that’s already been written and discussed about the agency’s announcement, from the drug’s exorbitantly high price of $56,000 per year to criticism over lowered standards, ALS patients see something more. ALS patients and associations say they largely regarded Aduhelm’s approval as a bittersweet double standard: happy that those with Alzheimer’s have a new drug available, but questioning how the FDA evaluated Biogen’s drug compared to the experimental programs being studied for their own disease.

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Spring reg­u­la­to­ry agen­da: What’s com­ing soon-ish from the FDA

The FDA’s lack of a permanent commissioner does not seem to be halting its progress to propose and finalize dozens of new regulations, with the latest batch covering everything from adverse event reporting to supplemental application submissions to annual reports for INDs.

Overall, FDA expects to release more than 40 new proposed regulations and finalize another 24 in the coming months and years.

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Leen Kawas, Athira CEO

Biotech founder placed on leave as $400M Alzheimer's start­up idea comes un­der scruti­ny

Athira Pharma, the Alzheimer’s biotech that emerged out of obscurity last year and raised nearly $400 million for a dark-horse approach to treating neurodegeneration, has found itself in sudden turmoil.

On Tuesday evening, the company released a terse statement announcing that CEO and founder Leen Kawas had been placed on administrative leave while an independent review board investigated “actions stemming” from her doctoral research at Washington State University. Mark Litton, who joined the company as COO two years ago, will take over day-to-day operations, they said.

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Christian Hogg, Hutchmed CEO

Hutchmed files for $600M+ IPO in Hong Kong as lead on­col­o­gy drug su­r­u­fa­tinib awaits FDA's good graces

In oncology, a flush of Chinese-developed drugs has the biopharma industry rethinking the poles of power in R&D as the blossoming nation continues to make a name for itself and pick up bundles of cash in the process. Now, as its lead drug faces a pivotal FDA review, the company formerly known as Chi-Med is planting its flag on home soil with a massive public offering.

Hutchmed — recently renamed from Chi-Med, or Hutchison China MediTech — will look to raise $603 million as part of a Hong Kong IPO that serves as a homecoming of sorts for the Chinese-based oncology player, which has listed on Nasdaq since 2016.