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.

Biotech and Big Phar­ma: A blue­print for a suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship

Strategic partnerships have long been an important contributor to how drugs are discovered and developed. For decades, big pharma companies have been forming alliances with biotech innovators to increase R&D productivity, expand geographical reach and better manage late-stage commercialization costs.

Noël Brown, Managing Director and Head of Biotechnology Investment Banking, and Greg Wiederrecht, Ph.D., Managing Director in the Global Healthcare Investment Banking Group at RBC Capital Markets, are no strangers to the importance of these tie-ups. Noël has over 20 years of investment banking experience in the industry. Before moving to the banking world in 2015, Greg was the Vice President and Head of External Scientific Affairs (ESA) at Merck, where he was responsible for the scientific assessment of strategic partnership opportunities worldwide.

No­var­tis' sec­ond at­tempt to repli­cate a stun­ning can­cer re­sult falls flat

Novartis’ hopes of turning one of the most surprising trial data points of the last decade into a lung cancer drug has taken another setback.

The Swiss pharma announced Monday that its IL-1 inhibitor canakinumab did not significantly extend the lives or slow the disease progression of patients with previously untreated locally advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer when compared to standard of-care alone.

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Robert Califf (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP Images, File)

As buzz on Califf FDA nom heats up, in­dus­try and agency in­sid­ers of­fer a strong nod for the ‘per­fect’ choice

For once in this long, dramatic road to finding a new FDA commissioner, there’s been some continuity. Both CNN and Politico reported this weekend that Rob Califf met with President Biden to discuss the permanent commish role, following earlier news broken by the Washington Post that all signs point to Califf.

Although there may be a few Democrats who continue to grandstand about the dangers of COI (Califf has worked for Verily, sits on the board of Centessa Pharmaceuticals, and has other ties to industry research), with the pandemic ongoing and the need for some kind of continuity at FDA mounting, Califf is likely to meet the same fate as when he first won Senate confirmation in 2016, by a vote of 89-4 — Bernie Sanders and 6 others didn’t vote.

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AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot (Raphael Lafargue/Abaca/Sipa USA)

A com­bo of As­traZeneca's Imfinzi and chemo wins where oth­ers have failed in piv­otal bil­iary tract test

Looking to run with the big dogs in the PD-(L)1 class, AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi has a tall hill to climb to compete in an increasingly bustling market. An aggressive combo strategy for the drug has paid off so far, and now AstraZeneca is adding another notch to its belt.

A combo of Imfinzi (durvalumab) and chemotherapy significantly extended the lives of first-line patients with advanced biliary tract cancer over chemo alone, according to topline results from the Phase III TOPAZ-1 study revealed Monday.

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Sean Ianchulev, Eyenovia CEO and CMO

Re­cent court de­ci­sion push­es FDA to re­ject and re­clas­si­fy drug-de­vice com­bo, crush­ing shares

Back in April, the FDA lost a crucial court case in which its broad discretion of regulating medical products that might satisfy the legal definitions of either “drug” and/or “medical device” was sharply curtailed.

In addition to the appeals court ruling that Genus Medical Technologies’ contrast agent barium sulfate (aka Vanilla SilQ) should not be considered a drug, as the FDA had initially ruled, but as a medical device, the agency also was forced to spell out which drugs would transition to devices as a result of the ruling.

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Peter Greenleaf, Aurinia CEO

Af­ter pass­ing on Ac­celeron, Bris­tol My­ers eyes bolt-on ac­qui­si­tion of au­toim­mune spe­cial­ist — re­port

Bristol Myers Squibb is looking to beef up its autoimmune portfolio by scooping up Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, Bloomberg reported.

The recent overtures to Aurinia, relayed by anonymous insiders, came just as Bristol Myers turned down buyout talks with partners at Acceleron — which Merck ultimately struck a deal to acquire for $11.5 billion. Bristol Myers has reportedly decided to cash out on its minority stake, likely bagging $1.3 billion in the process, while keeping the royalty deals on two of Acceleron’s blood disorder drugs.

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So — that pig-to-hu­man trans­plant; Po­ten­tial di­a­betes cure reach­es pa­tient; Ac­cused MIT sci­en­tist lash­es back; 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.

We’re incredibly excited to welcome Beth Bulik, seasoned pharma marketing reporter, to the team. You can find much of her work in our new Marketing channel — and in her weekly newsletter, Endpoints PharmaRx, which will launch in early November. Add it to your subscriptions here.

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NYU surgeon transplants an engineered pig kidney into the outside of a brain-dead patient (Joe Carrotta/NYU Langone Health)

No, sci­en­tists are not any clos­er to pig-to-hu­man trans­plants than they were last week

Steve Holtzman was awoken by a 1 a.m. call from a doctor at Duke University asking if he could put some pigs on a plane and fly them from Ohio to North Carolina that day. A motorcyclist had gotten into a horrific crash, the doctor explained. He believed the pigs’ livers, sutured onto the patient’s skin like an external filter, might be able to tide the young man over until a donor liver became available.

UP­DAT­ED: Agenus calls out FDA for play­ing fa­vorites with Mer­ck, pulls cer­vi­cal can­cer BLA at agen­cy's re­quest

While criticizing the FDA for what may be some favoritism towards Merck, Agenus on Friday officially pulled its accelerated BLA for its anti-PD-1 inhibitor balstilimab as a potential second-line treatment for cervical cancer because of the recent full approval for Merck’s Keytruda in the same indication.

The company said the BLA, which was due for an FDA decision by Dec. 16, was withdrawn “when the window for accelerated approval of balstilimab closed,” thanks to the conversion of Keytruda’s accelerated approval to a full approval four months prior to its PDUFA date.

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