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.

Bob Nelsen (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images)

With stars aligned and cash in re­serve, Bob Nelsen's Re­silience plans a makeover at 2 new fa­cil­i­ty ad­di­tions to its drug man­u­fac­tur­ing up­start

Bob Nelsen’s new, state-of-the-art drug manufacturing initiative is taking shape.

Just 3 months after gathering $800 million of launch money, a dream team board and a plan to shake up a field where he found too many bottlenecks and inefficiencies for the era of Covid-19, Resilience has snapped up a pair of facilities now in line for a retooling.

The company has acquired a 310,000-square-foot plant in Boston from Sanofi along with a 136,000-square-foot plant in Ontario to add to a network which CEO Rahul Singhvi says is just getting started on building his company’s operations up. The Sanofi deal comes with a contract to continue manufacturing one of its drugs.

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Amit Munshi, Arena

One of Are­na's top drugs flops in a PhI­Ib study for IBS pain. But re­searchers tease out a pos­si­ble path for­ward as CEO ex­plores 's­trate­gic op­tion­s'

Four years ago, when Arena CEO Amit Munshi cut its ties to a troubled weight drug and doubled down on the pipeline, a cannabinoid receptor 2 agonist figured prominently in the biotech’s future. On Tuesday evening, however, Munshi’s high hopes for the drug took a nasty hit after it failed a Phase IIb study for patients with irritable bowel syndrome pain.

Put through a randomized pace with 273 patients, researchers said it flat failed the primary endpoint among the large group with abdominal pain. But they quickly went on to highlight subgroup data, always a tricky and controversial ploy, where they spotlighted a positive p value for patients with moderate to severe pain who received the high dose of the drug — one of 3 provided in the study.

Af­ter bail­ing on Covid-19 vac­cines, Mer­ck will team up with J&J to pro­duce its shot as part of un­usu­al Big Phar­ma pact

Merck took a big gamble when it opted to jump into the Covid-19 vaccine race late, and made an equally momentous decision to back out in late January. Now, looking to chip in on the effort, Merck reportedly agreed to team up with one of the companies that has already crossed the finish line.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday is expected to announce a partnership between drugmakers Merck and Johnson & Johnson to jointly produce J&J’s recombinant protein Covid-19 vaccine that received the FDA’s emergency use authorization Saturday, the Washington Post reported.

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck pulls Keytru­da in SCLC af­ter ac­cel­er­at­ed nod. Is the FDA get­ting tough on drug­mak­ers that don't hit their marks?

In what could be an early shot in the battle against drugmakers that whiff on confirmatory studies to support accelerated approvals, the FDA ordered Bristol Myers Squibb late last year to give up Opdivo’s approval in SCLC. Now, Merck is next on the firing line — are we seeing the FDA buckling down on post-marketing offenders?

Merck has withdrawn its marketing approval for PD-(L)1 inhibitor Keytruda in metastatic small cell lung cancer as part of what it describes as an “industry-wide evaluation” by the FDA of drugs that do not meet the post-marketing checkpoints on which their accelerated nods were based, the company said Monday.

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Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca CEO (AP Images)

Pas­cal So­ri­ot cash­es in As­traZeneca’s chips on Mod­er­na for $1.2B cash in­jec­tion

While still working to prove its own Covid-19 vaccine, AstraZeneca has reportedly capitalized on the success of another.

The company has sold off its 7.7% stake in Moderna and turned it into $1.2 billion in cash, according to the Times, beefing up the reserves just as Pascal Soriot is wrapping up his $39 billion acquisition of Alexion and its rare disease pipeline.

AstraZeneca’s stock sale follows a similar move by Merck in December. But like its pharma brethren, the British giant is keeping its R&D collaborations with Moderna.

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UP­DAT­ED: Feds clear the road for J&J to start de­liv­er­ing mil­lions of dos­es of their Covid-19 vac­cine — but frets linger about run­ner-up sta­tus

All the pieces needed to trigger a third wave of Covid-19 vaccine supply to start washing over the US fell neatly into place over the weekend.

After providing for a brief mime of regulatory judiciousness, the FDA stamped their emergency approval on J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine Saturday, adding to the Biden administration’s plan aimed at ending the pandemic in the near term — at least in the US. The CDC came through on Sunday with its stamp of approval and J&J is reportedly expected to start delivering vaccine sometime in the next few days.

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Ab­b­Vie tees up a biotech buy­out af­ter siz­ing up their Parkin­son's drug spun out of Ke­van Shokat's lab

AbbVie has teed up a small but intriguing biotech buyout after looking over the preclinical work it’s been doing in Parkinson’s disease.

The company is called Mitokinin, a Bay Area biotech spun out of the lab of UCSF’s Kevan Shokat, whose scientific explorations have formed the academic basis of a slew of startups in the biotech hub. One of Shokat’s PhD students in the lab, Nicholas Hertz, co-founded Mitokinin using their lab work on PINK1 suggesting that amping up its activity could play an important role in regulating the mitochondrial dysfunction contributing to Parkinson’s disease pathogenesis and progression.

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Paul Sekhri

The next big biotech su­per­star? Paul Sekhri has some thoughts on that

It occasionally occurs to Paul Sekhri that if they pull this off, his company will be on the front page of the New York Times and a lead story in just about every major news outlet on the planet. He tries not to dwell on it, though.

“I just want to be laser-focused on getting to that point,” Sekhri says, before acknowledging, “Yes, it absolutely crossed my mind.”

Sekhri, a longtime biopharma executive with tenures at Sanofi and Novartis, is now entering year three as CEO of eGenesis, the biotech that George Church protégé Luhan Yang founded to genetically alter pigs so that they can be used for organ transplants. He led them through one megaround and has just closed another, raising $125 million from 17 different investors to push the first-ever (humanized) pig to human transplants into the clinic.

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Fi­bro­Gen shares skid low­er as a sur­prise ad­comm rais­es risks on roxa OK

FibroGen will likely have to delay its US rollout for roxadustat once again.

In an unexpected move, the FDA is convening its Cardiovascular and Renal Drugs Advisory Committee to review the NDA in an advisory committee meeting. The date is yet to be confirmed.

Just a few weeks ago, SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges predicted that the roxa approval could come ahead of the PDUFA date on March 20 — effusive despite already being let down once by the FDA’s extension of its review back in December. AstraZeneca, which is partnered with FibroGen on the chronic kidney disease-related anemia drug, disclosed regulators had requested further clarifying analyses of clinical data.