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.

The top 100 bio­phar­ma VCs, Bob Brad­way places $2B bet in can­cer, gene edit­ing pi­o­neer's new big idea, 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.

Before diving in, we had some news to share: Endpoints is launching a premium weekly report focusing on all things regulatory. Coverage will be led by our new senior editor, Zachary Brennan, who joins us from POLITICO. Arsalan Arif has more details in his Publisher’s Note.

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Robert Bradway (Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Am­gen snaps up can­cer drug play­er Five Prime, adding PhI­II-ready FGFR2b drug in $2B M&A play

Amgen is making a long-awaited move on the M&A side, buying South San Francisco-based Five Prime $FPRX for close to $2 billion and adding a slate of new cancer drugs to the pipeline.

Amgen is paying $38 a share, putting the deal value at $1.9 billion. The stock closed at $21.26 last night, giving investors a 78% premium.

The jewel in the crown of this deal is bemarituzumab, which Amgen describes as a first-in-class, Phase III-ready anti-FGFR2b antibody. Amgen was drawn to the bargaining table by Five Prime’s mid-stage data on gastric cancer, satisfied by PFS and OS data helping to validate FGFR2b as a target. Amgen researchers will now expand on the R&D program in other epithelial cancers, including lung, breast, ovarian and other cancers.

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David Liu (Casey Atkins Photography courtesy Broad Institute)

David Liu has a new big idea: pro­teome edit­ing. It could one day shred tau, RAS and some of the worst dis­ease-caus­ing pro­teins

Before David Liu became famous for inventing new forms of gene editing, he was known around academia in part for a more obscure innovation: a Rube Goldberg-esque system that uses bacteria-infecting viruses to take one protein and turn it into another.

Since 2011, Liu’s lab has used the system, called PACE, to dream up fantastical new proteins: DNA base editors far more powerful than the original; more versatile forms of the gene editor Cas9; insecticides that kill insecticide-resistant bugs; enzymes that slide synthetic amino acids into living organisms. But they struggled throughout to master one of the most common and powerful proteins in the biological world: proteases, a set of Swiss army knife enzymes that cut, cleave or shred other proteins in everything from viruses to humans.

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The 2021 top 100 bio­phar­ma in­vestors: As the pan­dem­ic hit and IPOs boomed, VCs swung in­to ac­tion like nev­er be­fore

The global pandemic may have roiled economies, killed hundreds of thousands and throttled entire industries, but the only effect it had on biopharma venture investing was to help turbocharge the field to giddy new heights.

Below you’ll find the new top 100 venture investors in the industry, ranked by the number of deals they were publicly involved in, as tracked by DealForma chief Chris Dokomajilar. The numbers master then calculated the estimated amount of money they put into each deal — divvying up the cash by the number of players — to indicate how they managed their syndicates.

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Bruce Cozadd, Jazz CEO (Jazz Pharmaceuticals)

Jazz CEO Bruce Cozadd cam­paigned for 6 months to buy GW Phar­ma. A 90% pre­mi­um sealed the deal — along with $17.6M in ‘re­ten­tion’ in­cen­tives

Jazz CEO Bruce Cozadd didn’t beat around the bush.

In his first video meeting with GW Pharma chief Justin Gover last July 8, he offered to pay $172 a share to get the company, which had beaten the odds in getting its remarkable cannabinoid drug Epidiolex across the regulatory finish line for epilepsy. GW’s stock closed at $129 that day.

Cozadd had already done his homework on the financing to make sure he could swing it the way he wanted. He just needed to do some due diligence before making the non-binding bid firm.

Covid-19 roundup: RE­COV­ERY tri­al halts re­cruit­ment for colchicine study af­ter find­ing ‘no con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence’; Italy blocks As­traZeneca vac­cine ship­ment meant for Aus­tralia

It may be the end of the road for colchicine, an inexpensive oral anti-inflammatory drug commonly used to treat gout, as a potential Covid-19 treatment — at least in hospitalized patients.

The UK’s RECOVERY trial put out the word on Friday that it’s halting enrollment in its colchicine study after a data monitoring committee saw “no convincing evidence that further recruitment would provide conclusive proof of worthwhile mortality benefit either overall or in any pre-specified subgroup.”

UP­DAT­ED: Not 3 weeks af­ter tak­ing Hu­ma­cyte pub­lic, Ra­jiv Shuk­la launch­es an­oth­er blank check com­pa­ny

One of biotech’s earliest SPAC investors is back with another blank-check company, less than a month after his last effort announced its intent to merge.

Rajiv Shukla is intending to take a third lucky winner public with Alpha Healthcare Acquisition III, filing to go public Thursday with a $150 million raise penciled in. The move comes just a couple of weeks after Shukla’s second SPAC said it would jump to Nasdaq in tandem with Laura Niklason’s Humacyte in a $255 million new investment.

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Paul Hudson, Getty Images

How does Paul Hud­son's $13.5M comp pack­age stack up against oth­er CEOs? He's in the 'first quar­tile'

Paul Hudson arrived at Sanofi like a hurricane, chopping off duds in the pipeline, shaking up the C-suite, striking big M&A deals and jumping into the Covid-19 vaccine race — all in an attempt to reboot a pharma giant notorious for its setbacks.

Now, we’re getting a look at what the CEO brought home in his first year on the job.

When all is said and done, Hudson will have made about $6.7 million in 2020, about $2.5 million of which has already been paid. The bigger figure includes a $2.3 million bonus that’s subject to approval at an April meeting, and another $1.8 million in variable compensation that has yet to be paid.

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Brii Bio joins the NIH grave­yard along­side GSK, Lil­ly af­ter flop­ping an­ti­body study in hos­pi­tal­ized Covid-19 pa­tients

Just a day after GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology’s Covid-19 antibody fell flat in an NIH-sponsored trial for hospitalized patients, researchers have ejected another therapy from the study. Is this the death knell for monoclonal antibodies for those patients?

An antibody cocktail from Brii Biosciences failed to show a trend toward clinical benefit in the NIH’s ACTIV-3 trial, and as a result, did not meet criteria for further enrollment. As such, the NIH shut down the study subgroup evaluating the program Thursday, which contains the two Brii antibodies dubbed BRII-196 and BRII-198.