Ex­clu­sive: Gink­go teams with un­known up­start in hunt for Covid-19 an­ti­body

Gink­go Bioworks, with its vast ware­hous­es of au­to­mat­ed ro­bots and biore­ac­tors, has played a be­hind-the-scenes role in the an­ti-Covid fight since the start of the pan­dem­ic. They’ve helped pro­duce the mR­NA for Mod­er­na’s mR­NA vac­cine, joined a con­sor­tium to help dis­cov­er and an­a­lyze an­ti­bod­ies, and they’ve qui­et­ly laid out grand plans to use Il­lu­mi­na ma­chines to test mil­lions of Amer­i­cans per day.

Now, for the first time, the syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy be­he­moth is back­ing a Covid-19 drug, join­ing forces with a biotech you’ve nev­er heard of to do so.  They’ll work with To­tient, an an­ti­body-fo­cused start­up that is just emerg­ing from stealth mode to­day, to turn their al­ter­nate means of gen­er­at­ing virus-neu­tral­iz­ing in­to a treat­ment that could po­ten­tial­ly treat or tem­porar­i­ly pre­vent in­fec­tion. It’s a small part of a larg­er strat­e­gy Gink­go hopes can both make a broad im­pact on the lat­ter sea­son of the pan­dem­ic.

Naren­dra Ma­heshri

“We’re hop­ing Gink­go be­comes a house­hold name in the next 5 months,” Naren­dra Ma­heshri, Gink­go’s head of mam­malian bi­ol­o­gy, told End­points News. 

Gingko hasn’t his­tor­i­cal­ly de­vel­oped drugs in­de­pen­dent­ly, but rather part­nered with oth­er com­pa­nies that might ben­e­fit from ac­cess to their syn­thet­i­cal bi­ol­o­gy and an­a­lyt­i­cal plat­forms. Ac­cord­ing­ly, when the pan­dem­ic start­ed, they didn’t pur­sue an in­di­vid­ual pro­gram but in­stead be­gan reach­ing out to a host of com­pa­nies, of­fer­ing $25 mil­lion worth of work at their foundry for Covid-19 di­ag­nos­tic, ther­a­peu­tic and vac­cine projects. Specif­i­cal­ly, on drugs, they de­cid­ed to fo­cus on neu­tral­iz­ing an­ti­bod­ies — the same place Eli Lil­ly, Vir, As­traZeneca, Am­gen and Re­gen­eron were throw­ing their weight.

Most of these com­pa­nies de­rive neu­tral­iz­ing an­ti­bod­ies from the blood of sur­vivors, sam­pling which pro­teins the body nat­u­ral­ly made in re­sponse to in­fec­tion and sift­ing out the best ones. Ma­heshri said most of the re­searchers they spoke to used that ap­proach.

By con­trast, To­tient de­rives an­ti­bod­ies from what are known as ter­tiary lym­phoid struc­tures — ba­si­cal­ly ac­cu­mu­la­tions of im­mune cells that can form in places of height­ened in­flam­ma­tion, such as near a tu­mor or at the site of in­fec­tion. In the case of Covid-19, that’s the lungs. So in­stead of an­a­lyz­ing B cells in the blood for an­ti­bod­ies, they look for an­ti­bod­ies from flu­id in the lungs.

The idea both To­tient and Gink­go are bank­ing on — one they say has al­ready been borne out in cell lines — is that be­cause these are the an­ti­bod­ies that were in the hu­man–SARS-CoV-2 bat­tle­field, they will be most at­tuned to neu­tral­iz­ing the virus.

Deniz Kur­al

“We are sam­pling these an­ti­bod­ies that were di­rect­ly in­volved in the tis­sues un­der at­tack,” To­tient CEO Deniz Kur­al told End­points. “At least in our ex­per­i­ments … a lot of them are binders and they tend to be more dis­ease rel­e­vant.”

To­tient is al­so able to de­rive an­ti­bod­ies by look­ing at RNA from across tis­sue, as op­posed to just from a sin­gle cell, which both com­pa­nies say can be an ad­van­tage. Ma­heshri al­so not­ed the feed­back loop they’ve de­vel­oped to im­prove on ini­tial can­di­dates.

“They not on­ly have an­ti­body se­quences they re­con­struct but they al­so have in­for­ma­tion about the pa­tient, their im­mune re­sponse, how long they were in the hos­pi­tal,” he said.  “So our hits then help them re­fine their al­go­rithms to po­ten­tial­ly pull out po­ten­tial­ly even bet­ter an­ti­body se­quences, which he can then put back in­to our pipeline.”

So far, Gink­go has al­ready syn­the­sized and an­a­lyzed over 200 an­ti­bod­ies To­tient iden­ti­fied from the lungs of Covid-19 pa­tients, test­ing them against pseudovirus in cell lines. Nei­ther would dis­close the re­sults, but Ma­heshri said “they look very good.”

Gink­go doesn’t bring drugs in­to the clin­ic, so for now To­tient is look­ing for a part­ner to bring in­to the clin­ic in ear­ly 2021. Ma­heshri not­ed, though, that Gink­go is work­ing on meth­ods to scale up an­ti­body pro­duc­tion, leav­ing a door open for a part­ner­ship down the road. Sev­er­al an­ti­bod­ies are al­ready in the clin­ic, with Eli Lil­ly and Re­gen­eron near­ing ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta, but far more will be need­ed to match na­tion­al and glob­al de­mand. The an­ti­bod­ies found in lung flu­id are al­so dif­fer­ent from the ones found in blood, the com­pa­nies said, mean­ing they could be used in com­bi­na­tion with more ad­vanced can­di­dates.

Ankit Sax­e­na

To­tient, mean­while, is al­so work­ing on can­cer — their main longterm fo­cus. Found­ed by Kur­al and CBO James Si­et­stra, a pair of vet­er­ans from the bio­an­a­lyt­ics firm Sev­en Bridges, the com­pa­ny has an­a­lyzed these struc­tures in pa­tient sam­ples to de­vel­op hun­dreds of can­cer an­ti­bod­ies. They’ve set­tled on three pre­clin­i­cal can­di­dates and will use $10 mil­lion in seed fund­ing to ad­vance them fur­ther. A Se­ries A is in the works.

Gink­go, mean­while, has oth­er po­ten­tial ther­a­peu­tic and vac­cine part­ner­ships in the works, said Ankit Sax­e­na, Gink­go’s di­rec­tor of phar­ma busi­ness de­vel­op­ment. They’ve an­nounced plans to open up their first ma­jor test­ing fa­cil­i­ties in Oc­to­ber.

Secretary of health and human services Alex Azar speaking in the Rose Garden at the White House (Photo: AFP)

Trump’s HHS claims ab­solute au­thor­i­ty over the FDA, clear­ing path to a vac­cine EUA

The top career staff at the FDA has vowed not to let politics overrule science when looking at vaccine data this fall. But Alex Azar, who happens to be their boss’s boss, apparently won’t even give them a chance to stand in the way.

In a new memorandum issued Tuesday last week, the HHS chief stripped the FDA and other health agencies under his purview of their rule making ability, asserting all such power “is reserved to the Secretary.” Sheila Kaplan of the New York Times first obtained and reported the details of the September 15 bulletin.

President Donald Trump (via AP Images)

Signs of an 'Oc­to­ber Vac­cine Sur­prise' alarm ca­reer sci­en­tists

President Donald Trump, who seems intent on announcing a COVID-19 vaccine before Election Day, could legally authorize a vaccine over the objections of experts, officials at the FDA and even vaccine manufacturers, who have pledged not to release any vaccine unless it’s proved safe and effective.

In podcasts, public forums, social media and medical journals, a growing number of prominent health leaders say they fear that Trump — who has repeatedly signaled his desire for the swift approval of a vaccine and his displeasure with perceived delays at the FDA — will take matters into his own hands, running roughshod over the usual regulatory process.

Anthony Fauci (AP Images)

A press of­fi­cer at An­tho­ny Fau­ci’s NI­AID was un­masked as a hard-right Covid troll. He just re­tired to­day

William B Crews had been a public affairs specialist at the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

That ended today when he informed the agency of his decision to retire, after he was identified as the managing editor at RedState, a prominent Trump loyalist website.

Crews’ RedState duties are performed under the alias streiff. While enjoying the benefits of pseudonymity, he disparaged and worked against NIAID with an incendiary level of rhetoric in the midst of a pandemic.

#ES­MO20: Push­ing in­to front­line, Mer­ck and Bris­tol My­ers duke it out with new slate of GI can­cer da­ta

Having worked in parallel for years to move their respective PD-1 inhibitors up to the first-line treatment of gastrointestinal cancers, Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb finally have the data at ESMO for a showdown.

Comparing KEYNOTE-590 and CheckMate-649, of course, comes with the usual caveats. But a side-by-side look at the overall survival numbers also offer some perspective on a new frontier for the reigning checkpoint rivals, both of whom are claiming to have achieved a first.

Donald Trump, AP

Covid-19 roundup: Trump sug­gests Pfiz­er vac­cine could be first ap­proved; VBI Vac­cines inks de­vel­op­ment deal with Cana­da

President Donald Trump commented Monday morning that Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate could be the first to win approval by regulators.

During an interview on a Fox News’ morning show, the president said Pfizer was doing “very well” when asked which candidate could be approved, according to a Reuters report. He added that J&J could follow up afterward, saying “they’ll probably be a little later.”

UP­DAT­ED: Two wild weeks for Grail end in $8B Il­lu­mi­na buy­out

Grail’s whirlwind two weeks have ended in the wealthy arms of its former founder and benefactors.

Illumina has shelled out $8 billion to reacquire the closely-watched liquid biopsy startup they spun out just 5 years ago and sold off much of its shares just 3 years ago. The deal comes nearly two weeks after the well-heeled startup filed for a potentially massive IPO — one that was disrupted just a week later when Bloomberg reported that Illumina was in talks to buy their former spinout for up to $8 billion.

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As­traZeneca pub­lish­es Covid-19 vac­cine PhI­II pro­to­cols in lock­step with Mod­er­na and Pfiz­er. How are they dif­fer­ent?

Following in the steps of Moderna and Pfizer, the other two American drugmakers currently in Phase III trials for their Covid-19 vaccines, AstraZeneca posted its own study protocols over the weekend. The move is the latest in a series of rare peeks behind the curtain, as such blueprints are typically shared once such trials are completed.

“Given the unprecedented global impact of the Coronavirus pandemic and the need for public information, AstraZeneca has published the detailed protocol and design of our AZD1222 clinical trial. As with most clinical development, protocols are not typically shared publicly due to the importance of maintaining confidentiality and integrity of trials. AstraZeneca continues to work with industry peers to ensure a consistent approach to sharing timely clinical trial information,” the company said in a statement.

Roche vaults to the front of the NL­RP3 clin­i­cal race, pay­ing $448M up­front to bag In­fla­zome

Roche is going all in on NLRP3.

The pharma giant is putting down $448 million (€380 million) upfront to snatch Novartis-backed Inflazome, which makes it a clinical player in the space overnight.

Dublin and Cambridge, UK-based Inflazome is the second NLRP3-focused biotech Roche has acquired in less than two years, and although no numbers were disclosed in the Jecure buyout, this is almost certainly a much larger deal.

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#ES­MO20: Bris­tol My­ers marks Op­di­vo's sec­ond ad­ju­vant win — eye­ing a stan­dard of care gap

Moving into earlier and earlier treatment lines, Bristol Myers Squibb is reporting that adjuvant treatment with Opdivo has doubled the time that esophageal or gastroesophageal junction cancer patients stay free of disease.

With the CheckMate-577 data at ESMO, CMO Samit Hirawat said, the company believes it can change the treatment paradigm.

While a quarter to 30% of patients typically achieve a complete response following chemoradiation therapy and surgery, the rest do not, said Ronan Kelly of Baylor University Medical Center. The recurrence rate is also high within the first year, Hirawat added.