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.

Scoop: Boehringer qui­et­ly shut­ters a PhII for one of its top drugs — now un­der re­view

Boehringer Ingelheim has quietly shut down a small Phase II study for one of its lead drugs.

The private pharma player confirmed to Endpoints News that it had shuttered a study testing spesolimab as a therapy for Crohn’s patients suffering from bowel obstructions.

A spokesperson for the company tells Endpoints:

Taking into consideration the current therapeutic landscape and ongoing clinical development programs, Boehringer Ingelheim decided to discontinue our program in Crohn’s disease. It is important to note that this decision is not based on any safety findings in the clinical trials.

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Vas Narasimhan (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

No­var­tis de­tails plans to axe 8,000 staffers as Narasimhan be­gins sec­ond phase of a glob­al re­org

We now know the number of jobs coming under the axe at Novartis, and it isn’t small.

The pharma giant is confirming a report from Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger that it is chopping 8,000 jobs out of its 108,000 global staffers. A large segment will hit right at company headquarters in Basel, as CEO Vas Narasimhan axes some 1,400 of a little more than 11,000  jobs in Switzerland.

The first phase of the work is almost done, the company says in a statement to Endpoints News. Now it’s on to phase two. In the statement, Novartis says:

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Lina Gugucheva, NewAmsterdam Pharma CBO

Phar­ma group bets up to $1B-plus on the PhI­II res­ur­rec­tion of a once dead-and-buried LDL drug

Close to 5 years after then-Amgen R&D chief Sean Harper tamped the last spade of dirt on the last broadly focused CETP cholesterol drug — burying their $300 million upfront and the few remaining hopes for the class with it — the therapy has been fully resurrected. And today, the NewAmsterdam Pharma crew that did the Lazarus treatment on obicetrapib is taking another big step on the comeback trail with a €1 billion-plus regional licensing deal, complete with close to $150 million in upfront cash.

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How pre­pared is bio­phar­ma for the cy­ber dooms­day?

One of the largest cyberattacks in history happened on a Friday, Eric Perakslis distinctly remembers.

Perakslis, who was head of Takeda’s R&D Data Sciences Institute and visiting faculty at Harvard Medical School at the time, had spent that morning completing a review on cybersecurity for the British Medical Journal. Moments after he turned it in, he heard back from the editor: “Have you heard what’s going on right now?”

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Pearl Huang, Dunad Therapeutics CEO (Ken Richardson, PR Newswire)

Long­time biotech leader Pearl Huang takes the reins as CEO of No­var­tis-backed up­start

It has only been a few months since Pearl Huang exited the top seat at Cygnal Therapeutics, but now she’s back at the helm of another biotech.

After taking a few months off — passing an exam in that time to get her captain’s license from the US Coast Guard — she’s been named CEO of Dunad Therapeutics, a biotech focused on developing a small molecule covalent therapies that was founded in 2020. Huang told Endpoints News that two factors attracted her to going back to the c-suite: the company’s technology and its co-founders.

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(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Some phar­ma com­pa­nies promise to cov­er abor­tion-re­lat­ed trav­el costs — while oth­ers won't go that far yet

As the US Department of Health and Human Services promises to support the millions of women who would now need to cross state lines to receive a legal abortion, a handful of pharma companies have said they will pick up employees’ travel expenses.

GSK, Sanofi, Johnson & Johnson, BeiGene, Alnylam and Gilead have all committed to covering abortion-related travel expenses just four days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and revoked women’s constitutional right to an abortion.

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Aurobindo Pharma co-founders P. V. Ram Prasad Reddy (L) and K. Nityananda Reddy

Au­robindo Phar­ma re­ceives warn­ing let­ter from In­di­a's SEC fol­low­ing more FDA ques­tion marks

Indian-based generics manufacturer Aurobindo Pharma has been in the crosshairs of the FDA for several years now, but the company is also attracting attention from regulators within the subcontinent.

According to the Indian business news site Business Standard, a warning letter was sent to the company from the Securities Exchange Board of India, or SEBI.

The letter is related to disclosures made by the company on an ongoing FDA audit of the company’s Unit-1 API facility in Hyderabad, India as well as observations made by the US regulator between 2019 and 2022.

New Charles River Laboratories High Quality (HQ) Plasmid DNA Centre of Excellence at Bruntwood SciTech’s Alderley Park in Cheshire, United Kingdom. (Charles River)

Charles Riv­er Lab­o­ra­to­ries to start cell and gene ther­a­py man­u­fac­tur­ing at UK site in Sep­tem­ber

While Massachusetts-based Charles River Laboratories has been on an acquisition spree, they are not against planting their flag. The latest move by the company sees them crossing the pond to establish a manufacturing site in the UK.

The company on Tuesday opened its cell and gene therapy manufacturing center at Bruntwood SciTech’s Alderley Park in Cheshire, United Kingdom. The expansion follows Charles River’s acquisition of Cognate BioServices and Cobra Biologics in 2021 for $875 million. Cognate is a plasmid DNA, viral vector and cell therapy CDMO.

Bristol Myers Squibb (Alamy)

CVS re­sumes cov­er­age of block­buster blood thin­ner af­ter price drop fol­lows Jan­u­ary ex­clu­sion

Following some backlash from the American College of Cardiology and patients, Bristol Myers Squibb and Pfizer lowered the price of their blockbuster blood thinner Eliquis, thus ensuring that CVS Caremark would cover the drug after 6 months of it being off the major PBM’s formulary.

“Because we secured lower net costs for patients from negotiations with the drug manufacturer, Eliquis will be added back to our template formularies for the commercial segment effective July 1, 2022, and patient choices will be expanded,” CVS Health said in an emailed statement. “Anti-coagulant therapies are among the non-specialty products where we are seeing the fastest cost increases from drug manufacturers and we will continue to push back on unwarranted price increases.”