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.

Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk gestures to the audience after being recognized by President Trump following the successful launch of a Falcon 9 rocket at the Kennedy Space Center. (via Getty Images)

Tes­la chief Elon Musk teams up with Covid-19 play­er Cure­Vac to build 'R­NA mi­cro­fac­to­ries'

Elon Musk has joined the global tech crusade now underway to revolutionize vaccine manufacturing — now aimed at delivering billions of doses of a new mRNA vaccine to fight Covid-19. And he’s cutting right to the front.

In a late-night tweet Wednesday, the Tesla chief announced:

Tesla, as a side project, is building RNA microfactories for CureVac & possibly others.

That’s not a lot to go on. But the tweet comes a year after Tesla’s German division in Grohmann and CureVac filed a patent on a “bioreactor for RNA in vitro transcription, a method for RNA in vitro transcription, a module for transcribing DNA into RNA and an automated apparatus for RNA manufacturing.” CureVac, in the meantime, has discussed a variety of plans to build microfactories that can speed up the whole process for a global supply chain.

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Elias Zerhouni (Photo by Vincent Isore/IP3/Getty Images)

Elias Zer­houni dis­cuss­es ‘am­a­teur hour’ in DC, the de­struc­tion of in­fec­tious dis­ease R&D and how we need to prep for the next time

Elias Zerhouni favors blunt talk, and in a recent discussion with NPR, the ex-Sanofi R&D and ex-NIH chief had some tough points to make regarding the pandemic response.

Rather than interpret them, I thought it would be best to provide snippets straight from the interview.

On the Trump administration response:

It was basically amateur hour. There is no central concept of operations for preparedness, for pandemics, period. This administration doesn’t want to or has no concept of what it takes to protect the American people and the world because it is codependent. You can’t close your borders and say, “OK, we’re going to be safe.” You’re not going to be able to do that in this world. So it’s a lack of vision, basically just a lack of understanding, of what it takes to protect the American people.

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Sec­ond death trig­gers hold on Astel­las' $3B gene ther­a­py biotech's lead pro­gram, rais­ing fresh con­cerns about AAV

Seven months after Astellas shelled out $3 billion to acquire the gene therapy player Audentes, the biotech company’s lead program has been put on hold following the death of 2 patients taking a high dose of their treatment. And there was another serious adverse event recorded in the study as well, with a total of 3 “older” patients in the study affected.

The incidents are derailing plans to file for a near-term approval, which had been expected right about now.

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George Yancopoulos (Regeneron)

UP­DAT­ED: Re­gen­eron co-founder George Yan­copou­los of­fers a com­bat­ive de­fense of the po­lice at a high school com­mence­ment. It didn’t go well

Typically, the commencement speech at Yorktown Central School District in Westchester — like most high schools — is an opportunity to encourage students to face the future with confidence and hope. Regeneron president and co-founder George Yancopoulos, though, went a different route.

In a fiery speech, the outspoken billionaire defended the police against the “prejudice and bias against law enforcement” that has erupted around the country in street protests from coast to coast. And for many who attended the commencement, Yancopoulos struck the wrong note at the wrong time, especially when he combatively challenged someone for interrupting his speech with a honk for “another act of cowardness.”

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An ex­pe­ri­enced biotech is stitched to­geth­er from transpa­cif­ic parts, with 265 staffers and a fo­cus on ‘new bi­ol­o­gy’

Over the past few years, different teams at a pair of US-based biotechs and in labs in Japan have labored to piece together a group of cancer drug programs, sharing a single corporate umbrella with research colleagues in Japan. But now their far-flung operations have been knit together into a single unit, creating a pipeline with 10 cancer drug development programs — going from early-stage right into Phase III — and a host of discovery projects managed by a collective staff of some 265 people.

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Pfiz­er shares surge on pos­i­tive im­pact of their mR­NA Covid-19 vac­cine — part­nered with BioN­Tech — in an ear­ly-stage study

Pfizer and their partners at the mRNA specialist BioNTech have published the first glimpse of biomarker data from an early-stage study spotlighting the “robust immunogenicity” triggered by their Covid-19 vaccine, which is one of the leaders in the race to vanquish the global pandemic.

Researchers selected 45 healthy volunteers 18-55 years of age for the study. They were randomized to receive 2 doses, separated by 21 days, of 10 µg, 30 µg, or 100 µg of BNT162b1, “a lipid nanoparticle-formulated, nucleoside-modified, mRNA vaccine that encodes trimerized SARS-CoV-2 spike glycoprotein RBD.” Their responses were compared against the effect of a natural, presumably protective defense offered by a regular infection.

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Joseph Kim, Inovio CEO (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

Pos­i­tive Covid-19 vac­cine da­ta? New mouse study? OWS in­clu­sion? Yep, but some­how, the usu­al tid­bits from In­ovio back­fire

You don’t go more than 40 years in biotech without ever getting a product to market unless you can learn the art of writing a promotional press release. And Inovio captures the prize in baiting the hook.

Tuesday morning Inovio, which has been struggling to get its Covid-19 vaccine lined up for mass manufacturing, put out a release that touched on virtually every hot button in pandemic PR.

There was, first and foremost, an interim snapshot of efficacy from their Phase I program for INO-4800.

Jan van de Winkel, Genmab CEO

Seat­tle Ge­net­ics, Gen­mab turn on TV for a high­light reel in cer­vi­cal can­cer — but a ri­val biotech promis­es a bet­ter show

Seattle Genetics $SGEN and their partners at Genmab $GMAB polished up some positive Phase II numbers for their antibody drug conjugate tisotumab vedotin — you can call it TV — for recurrent cervical cancer. And while they mapped out a shortcut to a potential quick approval, the big challenge for this team is being presented by a rival biotech which muscled its way into the spotlight for the same indication a year ago.

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Dan Gold, MEI Pharma CEO

De­vel­op­ment part­ners at MEI, Helsinn dump a high-risk PhI­II AML study af­ter con­clud­ing it would fail sur­vival goal

Four years after Switzerland’s Helsinn put $25 million of cash on the table for an upfront and near-term milestone to take MEI Pharma’s drug pracinostat into a long-running Phase III trial for acute myeloid leukemia, the partners are walking away from a clinical pileup.

The drug — an HDAC inhibitor — failed to pass muster during a futility analysis, as researchers concluded that pracinostat combined with azacitidine wasn’t going to outperform the control group in the pivotal.