CEO Lex Rovner (64x Bio)

George Church backs a start­up so­lu­tion to the mas­sive gene ther­a­py man­u­fac­tur­ing bot­tle­neck

George Church and his grad­u­ate stu­dents have spent the last decade seed­ing star­tups on the ra­zor’s edge be­tween bi­ol­o­gy and sci­ence fic­tion: gene ther­a­py to pre­vent ag­ing, CRISPRed pigs that can be used to har­vest or­gans for trans­plant, and home kits to test your poop for healthy or un­healthy bac­te­ria. (OK, maybe they’re not all on that ra­zor’s edge.)

But now a new spin­out from the De­part­ment of Ge­net­ics’ sec­ond floor is tack­ling a far hum­bler prob­lem — one that ma­jor com­pa­ny af­ter ma­jor com­pa­ny has stum­bled over as they tried to get cures for rare dis­eases and oth­er gene ther­a­pies in­to the clin­ic and past reg­u­la­tors: How the hell do you build these?

There’s a lot hap­pen­ing for new ther­a­pies but not enough at­ten­tion around this prob­lem,” Lex Rovn­er, who was a post-doc at Church’s lab from 2015 to 2018, told End­points News. “And if we don’t fig­ure out how to fix this, many of these ther­a­pies won’t even reach pa­tients.”

This week, with Church and a cou­ple oth­er promi­nent sci­en­tists as co-founders, Rovn­er launched 64x Bio to tack­le one key part of the man­u­fac­tur­ing bot­tle­neck. They won’t be look­ing to retro­fit plants or build gene ther­a­py fac­to­ries, as Big Phar­ma and big biotech are now spend­ing bil­lions to do. In­stead, with $4.5 mil­lion in seed cash, they will try to en­gi­neer the in­di­vid­ual cells that churn out a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of the ther­a­pies.

George Church

The goal is to build cells that are fine-tuned to do noth­ing but spit out the vi­ral vec­tors that re­searchers and drug de­vel­op­ers use to shut­tle gene ther­a­pies in­to the body. Dif­fer­ent vec­tors have dif­fer­ent de­mands; 64x Bio will look to make ef­fi­cient cel­lu­lar fac­to­ries for each.

“While a few gen­er­al ways to in­crease vec­tor pro­duc­tion may ex­ist, each unique vec­tor serotype and pay­load pos­es a spe­cif­ic chal­lenge,” Church said in an emailed state­ment. “Our plat­form en­ables us to fine tune cus­tom so­lu­tions for these dis­tinct com­bi­na­tions that are par­tic­u­lar­ly hard to over­come.”

Be­fore join­ing Church’s lab, Rovn­er did her grad­u­ate work at Yale, where she stud­ied how to en­gi­neer bac­te­ria to pro­duce new kinds of pro­tein for drugs or oth­er pur­pos­es. And af­ter leav­ing Church’s lab in 2018, she ini­tial­ly set out to build a man­u­fac­tur­ing start­up with a broad fo­cus.

Yet as she spoke with hun­dreds of biotech ex­ec­u­tives on LinkedIn and in cof­fee shops around Cam­bridge, the same is­sue kept pop­ping up: They liked their gene ther­a­py tech­nol­o­gy in the lab but they didn’t know how to scale it up.

“Every­one kept say­ing the same thing,” Rovn­er said. “We ba­si­cal­ly re­al­ized there’s this huge prob­lem.”

The is­sue would soon make head­lines in in­dus­try pub­li­ca­tions: blue­bird de­lay­ing the launch of Zyn­te­glo, No­var­tis de­lay­ing the launch of Zol­gens­ma in the EU, Ax­o­vant de­lay­ing the start of their Parkin­son’s tri­al.

Part of the prob­lem, Rovn­er said, is that gene ther­a­pies are de­liv­ered on vi­ral vec­tors. You can build these vec­tors in mam­malian cell lines by feed­ing them a small cir­cu­lar strand of DNA called a plas­mid. The prob­lem is that mam­malian cells have, over bil­lions of years, evolved tools and de­fens­es pre­cise­ly to avoid mak­ing virus­es. (Lest the mam­mal they live in die of in­fec­tion).

There are ge­net­ic mu­ta­tions that can turn off some of the in­ter­nal de­fens­es and un­leash a cell’s abil­i­ty to pro­duce virus, but they’re rare and hard to find. Oth­er plat­forms, Rovn­er said, try to find these mu­ta­tions by us­ing CRISPR to knock out genes in dif­fer­ent cells and then screen­ing each of them in­di­vid­u­al­ly, a process that can re­quire hun­dreds of thou­sands of dif­fer­ent 100-well plates, with each well con­tain­ing a dif­fer­ent group of mu­tant cells.

“It’s just not prac­ti­cal, and so these plat­forms nev­er find the cells,” Rovn­er said.

64x Bio will try to find them by build­ing a li­brary of mil­lions of mu­tant mam­malian cells and then us­ing a mol­e­c­u­lar “bar­cod­ing” tech­nique to screen those cells in a sin­gle pool. The tech­nique, Rovn­er said, lets them trace how much vec­tor any giv­en cell pro­duces, al­low­ing re­searchers to quick­ly iden­ti­fy su­per-pro­duc­ing cells and their mu­ta­tions.

The tech­nol­o­gy was de­vel­oped par­tial­ly in-house but draws from IP at Har­vard and the Wyss In­sti­tute. Har­vard’s Pam Sil­ver and Wyss’s Jef­frey Way are co-founders.

The com­pa­ny is now based in So­Ma in San Fran­cis­co. With the seed cash from Fifty Years, Refac­tor and First Round Cap­i­tal, Rovn­er is re­cruit­ing and look­ing to raise a Se­ries A soon. They’re in talks with phar­ma and biotech part­ners, while they try to val­i­date the first pre­clin­i­cal and clin­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tions.

Gene ther­a­py is one fo­cus, but Rovn­er said the plat­form works for any­thing that in­volves vi­ral vec­tor, in­clud­ing vac­cines and on­colyt­ic virus­es. You just have to find the right mu­ta­tion.

“It’s the rare cell you’re look­ing for,” she said.

Pi­o­neer­ing Click Chem­istry in Hu­mans

Reimagining cancer treatments

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020, which is nearly one in six deaths. Recently, we have seen incredible advances in novel cancer therapies such as immune checkpoint inhibitors, cell therapies, and antibody-drug conjugates that have revamped cancer care and improved survival rates for patients.

Despite this significant progress in therapeutic targeting, why are we still seeing such a high mortality rate? The reason is that promising therapies are often limited by their therapeutic index, which is a measure of the effective dose of a drug, relative to its safety. If we could broaden the therapeutic indices of currently available medicines, it would revolutionize cancer treatments. We are still on the quest to find the ultimate cancer medicine – highly effective in several cancer types, safe, and precisely targeted to the tumor site.

Ivan Cheung, Eisai US chairman and CEO

Bio­gen, Ei­sai re­fresh amy­loid hy­poth­e­sis with PhI­II show­ing Alzheimer's med slows cog­ni­tive de­cline

In the first look at Phase III data for lecanemab, Eisai and Biogen’s follow-up Alzheimer’s drug to the embattled Aduhelm launch, results show the drug passed with flying colors on a test looking at memory, problem solving and other dementia metrics.

One of the most-watched Alzheimer’s therapies in the clinic, lecanemab met the study’s primary goal on the CDR-SB — Clinical Dementia Rating-Sum of Boxes — giving the biotech the confidence to ask for full approval in the US, EU and Japan by next March 31. The experimental drug reduced clinical decline on the scale by 27% compared to placebo at 18 months, the companies said Tuesday night Eastern time and Wednesday morning in Japan.

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Cell and gene ther­a­pies from acad­e­mia: EMA to help 5 projects go­ing af­ter un­met clin­i­cal needs

The European Medicines Agency said Thursday that it’s launching a new pilot program to help academic and other nonprofit researchers developing advanced therapy medicinal products, which includes cell and gene therapies.

Academics have proven to be enormously useful in feeding new products, like chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cell therapies first developed by Memorial Sloan Kettering, and ushered to the market by biopharma companies. Jean Bennett, formerly with the University of Pennsylvania, also saw her research lead to the approval of gene therapy Luxturna, which Roche now owns.

Nooman Haque, head of life sciences and healthcare at Silicon Valley Bank, and John Carroll

I’m head­ed to Lon­don soon for #EU­BIO22. Care to join me?

It was great getting back to a live ESMO conference/webinar in Paris followed by a live pop-up event for the Endpoints 11 in Boston. We’re staying on the road in October with our return for a live/streaming EUBIO22 in London.

Silicon Valley Bank’s Nooman Haque and I are once again jumping back into the thick of it with a slate of virtual and live events on October 12. I’ll get the ball rolling with a virtual fireside chat with Novo Nordisk R&D chief Marcus Schindler, covering their pipeline plans and BD work.

Gilead names 'k­ing­pin­s' in coun­ter­feit HIV med law­suit

Gilead is mounting its counterfeit drug lawsuit, naming two “kingpins” and a complex network of conspirators who allegedly sold imitation bottles of its HIV meds, some of which ended up in US pharmacies.

The pharma giant on Wednesday provided an update on what it called a “large-scale, sophisticated counterfeiting conspiracy,” accusing two new defendants of “leading and orchestrating” a scheme to sell hundreds of millions of dollars in illegitimate drugs posing as meds such as Biktarvy and Descovy.

Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) (Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images))

Sen­ate pass­es bill to re­work an­i­mal test­ing re­quire­ments for drug de­vel­op­ers

The US Senate passed via unanimous consent on Thursday afternoon a bipartisan bill that would eliminate a federal mandate for animal testing for new drugs.

Touted as a much-needed modernization of FDA’s rules, co-sponsor Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have said the bill will stop lots of needless suffering of animals.

Pa­tient re­port finds con­sti­pa­tion con­di­tion not well man­aged, open­ing door for bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion from phar­ma

Advertising for constipation treatments often uses light-hearted humor in an effort to spur open discussions about the sometimes stigmatized topic. However, that may not be enough to get people to take the condition seriously, a new patient report from Phreesia finds.

Fewer than one-fifth (17%) of patients with constipation surveyed understand the longer-term health risks of constipation such as hemorrhoids and bowel incontinence. Many are trying to manage their condition with over-the-counter medicines, but often for much longer than recommended. An equal 68% say they use home remedies or OTC meds to manage constipation. But while 90% understand that OTCs are not intended for long-term use, 50% have used an OTC constipation medicine for more than a year.

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Vlad Coric, Biohaven CEO (Photo Credit: Andrew Venditti)

As Amy­lyx de­ci­sion waits in the wings, Bio­haven’s ALS drug sinks (again) in plat­form tri­al

The FDA’s decision on Amylyx’s ALS drug is set to come out sometime Thursday. In a space with few drugs, any approval would be a major landmark.

But elsewhere in the ALS field, things are a bit more tepid.

Thursday morning, Biohaven announced that its drug verdiperstat failed its arm of an ALS platform trial led by Massachusetts General Hospital. According to a press release, the drug did not meet its primary endpoint — improvement on an ALS functional status test — or any key secondary endpoints at 24 weeks. The trial had enrolled 167 patients, giving them either verdiperstat or placebo twice a day.

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Tar­sus looks to raise aware­ness of eye­lid mite dis­ease in cam­paign aimed at eye­care spe­cial­ists

Eyelid mite disease may be “gross” but it’s also fairly common, affecting about 25 million people in the US.

Called demodex blepharitis, it’s a well-known condition among eyecare professionals, but they often don’t always realize how common it is. Tarsus Pharmaceuticals wants to change that with a new awareness campaign called “Look at the Lids.”

The campaign and website debut Thursday — just three weeks after Tarsus filed for FDA approval for a drug that treats the disease.

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