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.

At the In­flec­tion Point for the Next Gen­er­a­tion of Can­cer Im­munother­a­py

While oncology researchers have long pursued the potential of cellular immunotherapies for the treatment of cancer, it was unclear whether these therapies would ever reach patients due to the complexity of manufacturing and costs of development. Fortunately, the recent successful development and regulatory approval of chimeric antigen receptor-engineered T (CAR-T) cells have demonstrated the significant benefit of these therapies to patients.

Tillman Gerngross (Adagio)

Till­man Gern­gross on Omi­cron: 'It is a grim sit­u­a­tion...we’re go­ing to see a sig­nif­i­cant drop in vac­cine ef­fi­ca­cy'

Tillman Gerngross, the rarely shy Dartmouth professor, biotech entrepreneur and antibody expert, has been warning for over a year that the virus behind Covid-19 would likely continue to mutate, potentially in ways that avoid immunity from infection and the best defenses scientists developed. He spun out a company, Adagio, to build a universal antibody, one that could snuff out any potential mutation.

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In­cor­po­rat­ing Ex­ter­nal Da­ta in­to Clin­i­cal Tri­als: Com­par­ing Dig­i­tal Twins to Ex­ter­nal Con­trol Arms

Most drug development professionals are familiar with the nerve-racking wait for the read-out of a large trial. If it’s negative, is the investigational therapy ineffective? Or could the failure result from an unforeseen flaw in the design or execution of the protocol, rather than a lack of efficacy? The team could spend weeks analyzing data, but a definitive answer may be elusive due to insufficient power for such analyses in the already completed trial. These problems are only made worse if the trial had lower enrollment, or higher dropout than expected due to an unanticipated event like COVID-19. And if a trial is negative, the next one is likely to be larger and more costly — if it happens at all.

Jeff Albers, Blueprint Medicines CEO

Look­ing past Big Phar­ma ri­vals, Blue­print buys a pre­clin­i­cal biotech for $250M+

J&J’s Rybrevant scored the first approval back in May for a small group of lung cancer patients with a rare EGFR mutation. Despite a swarm of other biopharma companies angling for a piece of that market, Blueprint Medicines is betting nearly $500 million on a candidate it thinks will stand out.

Blueprint is putting down $250 million in cash and another $215 million in biobucks for Lengo Therapeutics and its preclinical non-small cell lung cancer program LNG-451. Though it hasn’t been tested in humans, Blueprint says the candidate was “highly brain-penetrant” in preclinical trials, and has the potential to inhibit all common EGFR exon 20 insertion variants — which are found in just 2% to 3% of NSCLC patients.

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More man­u­fac­tur­ing is­sues: Fen­nec preps for sec­ond CRL for po­ten­tial hear­ing loss drug

Shares of Fennec Pharmaceuticals stock were cut almost in half early Monday as the company said manufacturing issues caused another FDA rejection of its reformulated version of sodium thiosulfate, which is intended to help kids who lose hearing due to chemo treatment.

The biotech had resubmitted an NDA for the drug to treat platinum-based, chemo-related ototoxicity in young children earlier this year. The first NDA was denied by the FDA last year, with the agency citing manufacturing issues with the biotech’s supplier.

Róbert Wessman, Alvogen CEO

Biotech bil­lion­aire Róbert Wess­man en­gi­neers $450M deal for Alvo­gen sub­sidiaries

Alvogen is handing off two of its subsidiaries to CEO Róbert Wessman and his healthcare investment firm Aztiq — who has now tied the two together in a massive biobucks deal.

In an alliance with Thailand’s PTT Group subsidiary Innobic, the two companies signed an agreement last week to buy a 100% stake in Alvogen Emerging Market Holdings Limited (AEMH) for $475 million from Alvogen, buying out shareholders such as CVC Capital Partners and Singapore’s Temasek. And now, the group is the majority shareholder of Alvogen’s former Asian subsidiary Lotus Pharmaceuticals and the only shareholder of Alvogen Malta, the owner of B2B pharma Adalvo.

Like the flu vac­cine every year, the FDA could move quick­ly on a vari­ant-tar­get­ed Covid vac­cine

In the same way that the FDA signs off on flu vaccines every year without requiring large clinical trials to measure their efficacy, the FDA may employ a similar strategy in authorizing variant-focused versions of the mRNA vaccines.

As the world braces for more data on the latest variant Omicron, which may reduce vaccine efficacy, top vaccine developers like Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have promised they can pull together a new vaccine targeted against a specific Covid variant in about 100 days. Since Omicron emerged last week, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and J&J have all said they’ve begun work on Omicron-specific vaccines, if needed.

Thanks­giv­ing edi­tion: Top 15 End­points sto­ries of 2021; Can you name that vac­cine?; Mer­ck­'s Covid an­tivi­ral dis­ap­points; FDA nom­i­nee's in­dus­try ties; 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.

Happy Thanksgiving to all those who are celebrating it — although, if we are being honest, this week’s abbreviated edition is really for those who are not. Wherever you’re tuning in from, we appreciate your support, hope you find this recap helpful and we wish you a wonderful weekend.

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Troy Wilson, Kura CEO

UP­DAT­ED: FDA hits the red light on an ear­ly-stage AML study af­ter a pa­tient dies

The FDA has slapped a clinical hold on the early-stage program for one of Kura Oncology’s cancer drugs following a patient’s death in a clinical trial.

The biotech $KURA reported early Wednesday that the Phase Ib study of KO-539 for acute myeloid leukemia would be halted, suspending enrollment, while researchers and the FDA probed the death. Patients already on the drug can continue taking it.

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