Bill Haney, Skyhawk

Fat­ten­ing the bankroll, Bill Haney adds can­cer R&D pow­er­house Mer­ck to Sky­hawk's ros­ter of part­ners out to drug RNA

What­ev­er Bio­gen learned about Sky­hawk in the 6 months since it an­ted up $74 mil­lion to get a col­lab­o­ra­tion go­ing with their R&D team on drug­ging RNA for neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion, it must have been a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

Dean Li Linkedin

The big biotech has al­ready come back to the bar­gain­ing ta­ble and signed up to ex­pand the range of tar­gets on their dis­cov­ery list. And this morn­ing Sky­hawk is al­so an­nounc­ing that phar­ma gi­ant Mer­ck has stepped up with its own ini­tia­tive on neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion while adding can­cer to the RNA menu of col­lab­o­ra­tive spe­cial­ties at the up­start drug dis­cov­ery unit for the first time.

Sky­hawk chief Bill Haney wasn’t be­ing ex­plic­it about the terms — Mer­ck, in par­tic­u­lar, is tra­di­tion­al­ly loathe to dis­cuss the fi­nan­cial de­tails in­volved in their dis­cov­ery pacts — but fac­tor in the $149 mil­lion in hard up­fronts al­ready an­nounced with Bio­gen, Cel­gene and Take­da (al­so on neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion), and Haney tells me lit­tle Sky­hawk has round­ed up “quite a bit of mon­ey” with its deals in just 18 months. With the eq­ui­ty Haney has at­tract­ed or put in, the bankroll push­es well past the $200 mil­lion mark. 

The mile­stones? They stretch up in­to the bil­lions. Mer­ck alone at­tached a $600 mil­lion deal to­tal on every pro­gram they opt­ed for.

Tyler Jacks Jacks Lab

Dean Li, the head of dis­cov­ery at Mer­ck Re­search Labs, says the phar­ma gi­ant sees this deal as an op­por­tu­ni­ty to do some­thing brand new in RNA splic­ing, with a plan to go af­ter some cur­rent­ly un­drug­gable goals. (And no, he didn’t say which ones.)

Haney, a doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er and busy biotech en­tre­pre­neur, placed a heavy em­pha­sis on grow­ing the com­pa­ny with deal cash since he and the in­sid­ers at the com­pa­ny put up $8 mil­lion in seed mon­ey at the be­gin­ning of 2018. And while Sky­hawk wasn’t the first of the group of star­tups to un­veil plans to dis­cov­er small mol­e­cules that could be used to drug RNA, they’ve come up with the most im­pres­sive ros­ter of al­liances in the field.

Tai Wong Linkedin

Haney al­so runs Drag­on­fly, which in­cludes Tyler Jacks at MIT — a mar­quee sci­en­tist in the on­col­o­gy world — as one of the co-founders. Af­ter serv­ing as an un­of­fi­cial ad­vis­er at Sky­hawk for some time now, Jacks has now for­mal­ly ac­cept­ed the role of head of the sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­so­ry board at the com­pa­ny, which has built up a staff of 40 in Cam­bridge with a full-time equiv­a­len­cy group of 120. 

Sky­hawk has been grow­ing fast, but Haney says it’s al­so been run­ning at a de­lib­er­ate speed. The team pur­pose­ful­ly held back on open­ing up talks on the on­col­o­gy front un­til last Jan­u­ary’s JP Mor­gan con­fab. Can­cer is where the in-house pro­gram is fo­cused, with 2 pro­grams set to en­ter the clin­ic near-term. And now that they are div­ing deep­er in­to can­cer with some plans to ex­plore vir­gin ter­ri­to­ry in R&D, he’s brought in Bris­tol-My­ers vet Tai Wong as VP of on­col­o­gy bi­ol­o­gy. Wong spent 19 years at Bris­tol run­ning the on­col­o­gy drug dis­cov­ery unit. Then he jumped to Pelo­ton, which was ac­quired by Mer­ck for $2.2 bil­lion.

It’s a small world.

BiTE® Plat­form and the Evo­lu­tion To­ward Off-The-Shelf Im­muno-On­col­o­gy Ap­proach­es

Despite rapid advances in the field of immuno-oncology that have transformed the cancer treatment landscape, many cancer patients are still left behind.1,2 Not every person has access to innovative therapies designed specifically to treat his or her disease. Many currently available immuno-oncology-based approaches and chemotherapies have brought long-term benefits to some patients — but many patients still need other therapeutic options.3

Is a pow­er­house Mer­ck team prepar­ing to leap past Roche — and leave Gilead and Bris­tol My­ers be­hind — in the race to TIG­IT dom­i­na­tion?

Roche caused quite a stir at ASCO with its first look at some positive — but not so impressive — data for their combination of Tecentriq with their anti-TIGIT drug tiragolumab. But some analysts believe that Merck is positioned to make a bid — soon — for the lead in the race to a second-wave combo immuno-oncology approach with its own ambitious early-stage program tied to a dominant Keytruda.

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President Donald Trump (left) and Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed (Alex Brandon, AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: White House names fi­nal­ists for Op­er­a­tion Warp Speed — with 5 ex­pect­ed names and one no­table omis­sion

A month after word first broke of the Trump Administration’s plan to rapidly accelerate the development and production of a Covid-19 vaccine, the White House has selected the five vaccine candidates they consider most likely to succeed, The New York Times reported.

Most of the names in the plan, known as Operation Warp Speed, will come as little surprise to those who have watched the last four months of vaccine developments: Moderna, which was the first vaccine to reach humans and is now the furthest along of any US effort; J&J, which has not gone into trials but received around $500 million in funding from BARDA earlier this year; the joint AstraZeneca-Oxford venture which was granted $1.2 billion from BARDA two weeks ago; Pfizer, which has been working with the mRNA biotech BioNTech; and Merck, which just entered the race and expects to put their two vaccine candidates into humans later this year.

Bris­tol-My­ers is clean­ing up the post-Cel­gene merg­er pipeline, and they’re sweep­ing out an ex­per­i­men­tal check­point in the process

Back during the lead up to the $74 billion buyout of Celgene, the big biotech’s leadership did a little housecleaning with a major pact it had forged with Jounce. Out went the $2.6 billion deal and a collaboration on ICOS and PD-1.

Celgene, though, also added a $530 million deal — $50 million up front — to get the worldwide rights to JTX-8064, a drug that targets the LILRB2 receptor on macrophages.

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Leen Kawas, Athira CEO (Athira)

Can a small biotech suc­cess­ful­ly tack­le an Ever­est climb like Alzheimer’s? Athi­ra has $85M and some in­flu­en­tial back­ers ready to give it a shot

There haven’t been a lot of big venture rounds for biotech companies looking to run a Phase II study in Alzheimer’s.

The field has been a disaster over the past decade. Amyloid didn’t pan out as a target — going down in a litany of Phase III failures — and is now making its last stand at Biogen. Tau is a comer, but when you look around and all you see is destruction, the idea of backing a startup trying to find complex cocktails to swing the course of this devilishly complicated memory-wasting disease would daunt the pluckiest investors.

GSK presents case to ex­pand use of its lu­pus drug in pa­tients with kid­ney dis­ease, but the field is evolv­ing. How long will the mo­nop­oly last?

In 2011, GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta became the first biologic to win approval for lupus patients. Nine years on, the British drugmaker has unveiled detailed positive results from a study testing the drug in lupus patients with associated kidney disease — a post-marketing requirement from the initial FDA approval.

Lupus is a drug developer’s nightmare. In the last six decades, there has been just one FDA approval (Benlysta), with the field resembling a graveyard in recent years with a string of failures including UCB and Biogen’s late-stage flop, as well as defeats in Xencor and Sanofi’s programs. One of the main reasons the success has eluded researchers is because lupus, akin to cancer, is not just one disease — it really is a disease of many diseases, noted Al Roy, executive director of Lupus Clinical Investigators Network, an initiative of New York-based Lupus Research Alliance that claims it is the world’s leading private funder of lupus research, in an interview.

José Basel­ga finds promise in new class of RNA-mod­i­fy­ing can­cer tar­gets, lock­ing in 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams with $55M

Having dived early into some of the RNA breakthroughs of the last decades — betting on Moderna’s mRNA tech and teaming up with Silence on the siRNA front — AstraZeneca is jumping into a new arena: going after proteins that modify RNA.

Their partner of choice is Accent Therapeutics, which is receiving $55 million in upfront payment to steer a selected preclinical program through to the end of Phase I. After AstraZeneca takes over, the Lexington, MA-based startup has the option to co-develop and co-commercialize in the US — and collect up to $1.1 billion in milestones in the long run. The deal also covers two other potential drug candidates.

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Gilead bol­sters its case for block­buster hope­ful fil­go­tinib as FDA pon­ders its de­ci­sion

Before remdesivir soaked up the spotlight amid the coronavirus crisis, Gilead’s filgotinib was the star experimental drug tapped to rake in billions competing with other JAK inhibitors made by rivals including AbbVie and Eli Lilly.

Now, long term data on the drug — discovered by Gilead’s partners at Galapagos and posted as part of a virtual medical conference — have solidified the durability and safety of filgotinib in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, spanning data from three late-stage trials. An FDA decision on the drug is expected this year.

Covid-19 roundup: Mod­er­na read­ies to en­ter PhI­II in Ju­ly, As­traZeneca not far be­hind; EU ready to ne­go­ti­ate vac­cine ac­cess with $2.7B fund

Moderna may soon add another first to the Covid-19 vaccine race.

In March, the mRNA biotech was the first company to put a Covid-19 vaccine into humans. Next month, they may become the first company to put their vaccine into the large, late-stage trials that are needed to prove whether the vaccine is effective.

In an interview with JAMA editor Howard Bauchner, NIAID chief Anthony Fauci said that a 30,000-person, Phase III trial for Moderna’s vaccine could start in July. The news comes a week after Moderna began a Phase II study that will enroll several hundred people.

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