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.

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis' gene ther­a­py group? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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President Biden and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla (Patrick Semansky/AP Images)

Chaot­ic ad­comm sees Pfiz­er/BioN­Tech boost­ers re­ject­ed for gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion, but rec­om­mend­ed for old­er and high-risk pop­u­la­tions

With just days before President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 booster rollout is set to go into effect, an FDA advisory committee appeared on the verge of not recommending boosters for anyone in the US before a last-minute change of wording laid the groundwork for older adults to have access to a third dose.

The FDA’s adcomm on Vaccines and Related Biological Products (VRBPAC) roundly rejected Pfizer/BioNTech booster shots for all individuals older than 16 by a 16-2 vote Friday afternoon. Soon after, however, the agency posed committee members a new question limiting booster use to the 65-and-older population and individuals at high risk of disease due to occupational exposure or comorbidities.

Covid-19 roundup: J&J boost­er shot da­ta show promise; CD­C's ACIP meet­ing this week to dis­cuss Pfiz­er boost­ers

J&J revealed a summary of new Covid-19 vaccine data today, including new results showing booster shots may help with protection.

A Phase III study (ENSEMBLE 2) looked at booster shots at two different points in time: a second shot 56 days after the first shot, or a second shot six months after the first. The eight-week shot showed increased protection against symptomatic Covid-19, with the following levels of protection:

When ef­fi­ca­cy is bor­der­line: FDA needs to get more con­sis­tent on close-call drug ap­provals, agency-fund­ed re­search finds

In the exceedingly rare instances in which clinical efficacy is the only barrier to a new drug’s approval, new FDA-funded research from FDA and Stanford found that the agency does not have a consistent standard for defining “substantial evidence” when flexible criteria are used for an approval.

The research comes as the FDA is at a crossroads with its expedited-review pathways. The accelerated approval pathway is under fire as the agency recently signed off on a controversial new Alzheimer’s drug, with little precedent to explain its decision. Meanwhile, top officials like Rick Pazdur have called for a major push to simplify and clarify all of the various expedited pathways, which have grown to be must-haves for sponsors of nearly every newly approved drug.

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Af­ter sell­ing to Genen­tech, the old Je­cure team is back at an RNA-fo­cused start­up — and more en­thu­si­as­tic than ever

When Genentech swooped in to buy NASH-focused Jecure Therapeutics back in 2018, a handful of the startup’s executives weren’t quite ready to disperse.

It had been just three years since Jecure launched with a preclinical portfolio of NLRP3 inhibitors — and the takeover came sooner than anyone, including CEO Jeff Stafford, had expected. So he got talking with James Veal and Gretchen Bain, two serial entrepreneurs in charge of Jecure’s R&D.