Feng Zhang, heavy­weight col­lab­o­ra­tors un­veil lat­est CRISPR up­start — a di­ag­nos­tic com­pa­ny

Im­age: David Walt, Todd Gol­ub, Rahul Dhan­da, Feng Zhang, Deb­o­rah Hung. SHER­LOCK


One of the more dra­mat­ic dy­nam­ics in the aca­d­e­m­ic CRISPR world in­volves the Broad In­sti­tute and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, where Feng Zhang and Jen­nifer Doud­na, two pi­o­neers of the field, have their labs re­spec­tive­ly. As the dust starts to set­tle on their patent dis­pute re­gard­ing ther­a­peu­tic us­es of the gene edit­ing tech, a new storm is brew­ing in the di­ag­nos­tic ap­pli­ca­tions of CRISPR.

Zhang and eight oth­er lead­ing ex­perts in CRISPR, syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy, di­ag­nos­tics and in­fec­tious dis­eases have pulled back the cur­tain on Sher­lock Bio­sciences, a start­up aimed at pro­vid­ing “bet­ter, faster and more af­ford­able” ways to de­tect ge­net­ic sig­na­tures of dis­ease.

The com­pa­ny stands on two foun­da­tion­al tech­nolo­gies: SHER­LOCK, or Spe­cif­ic High-sen­si­tiv­i­ty En­zy­mat­ic Re­porter un­LOCK­ing, was de­vel­oped by Zhang and col­lab­o­ra­tors in­clud­ing co-founders Jonathan Gooten­berg and Omar Abu­dayyeh. Pair­ing CRISPR with the Cas13 en­zyme, the tech­nol­o­gy uti­lizes a guide RNA to find a ge­net­ic se­quence, where Cas13 not on­ly cuts the tar­get but be­gin shriv­el­ing oth­er RNA near­by, cre­at­ing a sig­nal that can then be pre­sent­ed in ob­serv­able forms — such as a line on a pa­per strip.

“Any one tech­nol­o­gy out there had some re­al­ly valu­able at­trib­ut­es in mol­e­c­u­lar di­ag­nos­tics but SHER­LOCK brought all of those to­geth­er,” Rahul Dhan­da, a co-founder and di­ag­nos­tics vet­er­an who took on the CEO role, told me. “It had speed, so you didn’t have to wait days for an in­fec­tious dis­ease re­sult; it had af­ford­abil­i­ty, which meant that you can do on­col­o­gy test­ing in a way that let every­body par­tic­i­pate in those re­sults; and it had sim­plic­i­ty, which means that you can reach peo­ple to do test­ing that couldn’t do it be­fore in de­cen­tral­ized set­tings.”

First in­vent­ed in 2017, an en­hanced ver­sion of SHER­LOCK was de­scribed in a pa­per pub­lished last Feb­ru­ary along­side an­oth­er ex­plain­ing DE­TEC­TR, a sim­i­lar tool that de­ploys Cas12 and a flu­o­res­cent mol­e­cule for de­tec­tion.

Doud­na of UC Berke­ley, who led the work on DE­TEC­TR, de­buted Mam­moth Bio­sciences short­ly there­after with a group of grad stu­dents, some of them from her lab. When we last heard from them, Mam­moth was work­ing with a $23 mil­lion round and back­ing from May­field, NFX, 8VC as well as Ap­ple’s Tim Cook and Grail found­ing CEO Jeff Hu­ber.


Im­age: Omar Abu­dayyeh, Jonathan Gooten­berg, Rahul Dhan­da, James Collins, Par­dis Sa­beti. SHER­LOCK

While com­par­isons with Mam­moth might be in­evitable, Dhan­da says he’s “very con­fi­dent” on the patent side and has faith in Sher­lock’s mul­ti-plat­form ap­proach to en­gi­neer­ing bi­ol­o­gy.

“Now I’ve been in the in­dus­try 20 years, I know how to nav­i­gate this field; it’s a nu­anced enough field that ex­pe­ri­ence mat­ters,” he added. “I would say that when I think about who we should be fo­cused on as com­pe­ti­tion, those are the large play­ers, the es­tab­lished mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar di­ag­nos­tic com­pa­nies out there, and those are the com­pa­nies that we in­tend to build strong part­ner­ships with if we can find the right com­ple­ment to our goals and theirs.”

Sher­lock now has $35 mil­lion in the bank — half of it in the form of a grant from the Open Phil­an­thropy Pro­ject, which al­so pro­vid­ed an ad­di­tion­al in­vest­ment. As it ex­plores ap­pli­ca­tions in in­fec­tious dis­eases, pre­ci­sion on­col­o­gy and food in­spec­tion, it is on the look­out for “se­lec­tive part­ner­ing” while ad­vanc­ing de­vel­op­ment pro­grams and de­sign­ing new as­says on its own, the com­pa­ny said. So far, that has in­volved every­thing from phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies look­ing for com­pan­ion di­ag­nos­tics to an­timi­cro­bial de­vel­op­ers seek­ing help with clin­i­cal tri­als to con­sumer health play­ers in search of at-home test­ing. Agri­cul­ture and bio­process test­ing are among the pos­si­bil­i­ties, too.

Dhan­da is still rais­ing cash for Sher­lock’s Se­ries A, which will al­so help fund the sec­ond plat­form in Sher­lock’s ar­se­nal: IN­SPEC­TR (IN­ter­nal Splint-Pair­ing Ex­pres­sion Cas­sette Trans­la­tion Re­ac­tion). James Collins at the Wyss In­sti­tute was cred­it­ed for the tech, which com­pris­es two halves of a cod­ing re­gion that fuse to cre­ate a sig­nalling pro­tein when the tar­get is present, ba­si­cal­ly repli­cat­ing how a cell would gen­er­ate a pro­tein.

In the com­ing year, Dhan­da is al­so plan­ning to hire 6 to 10 peo­ple to ramp up the R&D work cur­rent­ly han­dled by 10 staffers.

Oth­er co-founders in­clude Todd Gol­ub, Deb­o­rah Hung, Par­dis Sa­beti and David Walt — il­lus­tri­ous aca­d­e­mics who make up a team “like none oth­er.”

John Hood [file photo]

UP­DAT­ED: Cel­gene and the sci­en­tist who cham­pi­oned fe­dra­tinib's rise from Sanofi's R&D grave­yard win FDA OK

Six years after Sanofi gave it up for dead, the FDA has approved the myelofibrosis drug fedratinib, now owned by Celgene.

The drug will be sold as Inrebic, and will soon land in the portfolio at Bristol-Myers Squibb, which is finalizing a deal to acquire Celgene.

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Health­i­er, longer lifes­pans will be a re­al­i­ty soon­er than you think, Ju­ve­nes­cence promis­es as it clos­es $100M round

Earlier this year, an executive from Juvenescence-backed AgeX predicted the field of longevity will eventually “dwarf the dotcom boom.” Greg Bailey, the UK-based anti-aging biotech’s CEO, certainly hopes so.

On Monday, Juvenescence completed its $100 million Series B round of financing. The company is backed by British billionaire Jim Mellon — who wrote his 400-page guide to investing in the field of longevity shortly after launching the company in 2017.  Bailey, who served as a board director for seven years at Medivation before Pfizer swallowed the biotech for $14 billion, is joined by Declan Doogan, an industry veteran with stints at Pfizer and Amarin.

UP­DAT­ED: AveX­is sci­en­tif­ic founder was axed — and No­var­tis names a new CSO in wake of an ethics scan­dal

Now at the center of a storm of controversy over its decision to keep its knowledge of manipulated data hidden from regulators during an FDA review, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan has found a longtime veteran in the ranks to head the scientific work underway at AveXis, where the incident occurred. And the scientific founder has hit the exit.

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Ab­b­Vie gets its FDA OK for JAK in­hibitor upadac­i­tinib, but don’t look for this one to hit ex­ecs’ lofty ex­pec­ta­tions

Another big drug approval came through on Friday afternoon as the FDA OK’d AbbVie’s upadacitinib — an oral JAK1 inhibitor that is hitting the rheumatoid arthritis market with a black box warning of serious malignancies, infections and thrombosis reflecting fears associated with the class.

It will be sold as Rinvoq — at a wholesale price of $59,000 a year — and will likely soon face competition from a drug that AbbVie once controlled, and spurned. Reuters reports that a 4-week supply of Humira, by comparison, is $5,174, adding up to about $67,000 a year.

The top 10 fran­chise drugs in bio­phar­ma his­to­ry will earn a to­tal of $1.4T (tril­lion) by 2024 — what does that tell us?

Just in case you were looking for more evidence of just how important Amgen’s patent win on Enbrel is for the company and its investors, EvaluatePharma has come up with a forward-looking consensus estimate on what the list of top 10 drugs will look like in 2024.

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UP­DAT­ED: Sci­en­tist-CEO ac­cused of im­prop­er­ly us­ing con­fi­den­tial in­fo from uni­corn Alec­tor

The executive team at Alector $ALEC has a bone to pick with scientific co-founder Asa Abeliovich. Their latest quarterly rundown has this brief note buried inside:

On June 18, 2019, we initiated a confidential arbitration proceeding against Dr. Asa Abeliovich, our former consulting co-founder, related to alleged breaches of his consulting agreement and the improper use of our confidential information that he learned during the course of rendering services to us as our consulting Chief Scientific Officer/Chief Innovation Officer. We are in the early stage of this arbitration proceeding and are unable to assess or provide any assurances regarding its possible outcome.

There’s no explicit word in the filing on what kind of confidential info was involved, but the proceeding got started 2 days ahead of Abeliovich’s IPO.

Abeliovich, formerly a tenured associate professor at Columbia, is a top scientist in the field of neurodegeneration, which is where Alector is targeted. More recently, he’s also helped start up Prevail Therapeutics as the CEO, which raised $125 million in an IPO. And there he’s planning on working on new gene therapies that target genetically defined subpopulations of Parkinson’s disease. Followup programs target Gaucher disease, frontotemporal dementia and synucleinopathies.

But this time Abeliovich is the CEO rather than a founding scientist. And some of their pipeline overlaps with Alector’s.

Abeliovich and Prevail, though, aren’t taking this one lying down.

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Chi­na has be­come a CEO-lev­el pri­or­i­ty for multi­na­tion­al phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies: the trend and the im­pli­ca­tions

After a “hot” period of rapid growth between 2009 and 2012, and a relatively “cooler” period of slower growth from 2013 to 2015, China has once again become a top-of-mind priority for the CEOs of most large, multinational pharmaceutical companies.

At the International Pharma Forum, hosted in March in Beijing by the R&D Based Pharmaceutical Association Committee (RDPAC) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), no fewer than seven CEOs of major multinational pharmaceutical firms participated, including GSK, Eli Lilly, LEO Pharma, Merck KGaA, Pfizer, Sanofi and UCB. A few days earlier, the CEOs of several other large multinationals attended the China Development Forum, an annual business forum hosted by the research arm of China’s State Council. It’s hard to imagine any other country, except the US, having such drawing power at CEO level.

As dis­as­ter struck, Ab­b­Vie’s Rick Gon­za­lez swooped in on Al­ler­gan with an of­fer Brent Saun­ders couldn’t say no to

Early March was a no good, awful, terrible time for Allergan CEO Brent Saunders. His big lead drug had imploded in a Phase III disaster and activists were after his hide — or at least his chairman’s title — as the stock price continued a steady droop that had eviscerated share value for investors.

But it was a perfect time for AbbVie CEO Rick Gonzalez to pick up the phone and ask Saunders if he’d like to consider a “strategic” deal.

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CEO Pascal Soriot via Getty Images

As­traZeneca's jug­ger­naut PARP play­er Lyn­parza scoops up an­oth­er dom­i­nant win in PhI­II as the FDA adds a 'break­through' for Calquence

AstraZeneca’s oncology R&D group under José Baselga keeps churning out hits.

Wednesday morning the pharma giant and their partners at Merck parted the curtains on a successful readout for their Phase III PAOLA-1 study, demonstrating statistically significant improvement in progression-free survival for women with ovarian cancer in a first-line maintenance setting who added their PARP Lynparza to Avastin. This is their second late-stage success in ovarian cancer, which will help stave off rivals like GSK.

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