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.

The DCT-OS: A Tech­nol­o­gy-first Op­er­at­ing Sys­tem - En­abling Clin­i­cal Tri­als

As technology-enabled clinical research becomes the new normal, an integrated decentralized clinical trial operating system can ensure quality, deliver consistency and improve the patient experience.

The increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccines has many of us looking forward to a time when everyday things return to a state of normal. Schools and teachers are returning to classrooms, offices and small businesses are reopening, and there’s a palpable sense of optimism that the often-awkward adjustments we’ve all made personally and professionally in the last year are behind us, never to return. In the world of clinical research, however, some pandemic-necessitated adjustments are proving to be more than emergency stopgap measures to ensure trial continuity — and numerous decentralized clinical trial (DCT) tools and methodologies employed within the last year are likely here to stay as part of biopharma’s new normal.

As­traZeneca caps PD-L1/CT­LA-4/chemo com­bo come­back with OS win. Is treme­li­mum­ab fi­nal­ly ready for ap­proval?

AstraZeneca’s closely-watched POSEIDON study continues to be the rare bright spot in its push for an in-house PD-L1/CTLA-4 combo.

Combining Imfinzi and tremelimumab with physicians’ choice of chemotherapy helped patients with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer live longer, the company reported — marking the first time the still-experimental tremelimumab has demonstrated an OS benefit.

For AstraZeneca and CEO Pascal Soriot, the positive readout — which is devoid of numbers — offers much-needed validation for the big bet they made on Imfinzi plus tremelimumab, after the PD-L1/CTLA-4 regimen failed multiple trials in head and neck cancer as well as lung cancer.

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Ron DePinho (file photo)

A 'fly­over' biotech launch­es in Texas with four Ron De­Pin­ho-found­ed com­pa­nies un­der its belt

In his 13 years at Genzyme, Michael Wyzga noticed something about East Coast drugmakers. Execs would often jet from Boston or New York to San Francisco to find more assets, and completely miss the work being done in flyover states, like Texas or Wisconsin.

“If it doesn’t come out of MGH or MIT or Harvard, probably not that interesting,” he said of the mindset.

Now, he and some well-known industry players are looking to change that, and they’ve reeled in just over $38 million to do it.

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Onno van de Stolpe, Galapagos CEO (Thierry Roge/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images)

Gala­pa­gos chops in­to their pipeline, drop­ping core fields and re­or­ga­niz­ing R&D as the BD team hunts for some­thing 'trans­for­ma­tive'

Just 5 months after Gilead gutted its rich partnership with Galapagos following a bitter setback at the FDA, the Belgian biotech is hunkering down and chopping the pipeline in an effort to conserve cash while their BD team pursues a mission to find a “transformative” deal for the company.

The filgotinib disaster didn’t warrant a mention as Galapagos laid out its Darwinian restructuring plans. Forced to make choices, the company is ditching its IPF molecule ’1205, while moving ahead with a Phase II IPF study for its chitinase inhibitor ’4617.

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Stéphane Bancel, Getty

Mod­er­na CEO brush­es off US sup­port for IP waiv­er, eyes more than $19B in Covid-19 vac­cine sales in 2021

Moderna is definitively more concerned with keeping pace with Pfizer in the race to vaccinate the world against Covid-19 than it is with Wednesday’s decision from the Biden administration to back an intellectual property waiver that aims to increase vaccine supplies worldwide.

In its first quarter earnings call on Thursday, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel shrugged off any suggestion that the newly US-backed intellectual property waiver would impact his company’s vaccine or bottom line. Still, the company’s stock price fell by about 9% in early morning trading.

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Brent Saunders (Richard Drew, AP Images)

OcuWho? Star deal­mak­er turned aes­thet­ics czar Brent Saun­ders flips back in­to biotech. But who’s he team­ing up with now?

Brent Saunders went on a tear of headline-blazing deals building Allergan, merging and rearranging a variety of big companies into one before an M&A pact with Pfizer blew up and sent him on a bout of biotech drug deals. That didn’t work so well, so under pressure, he got his buyout at AbbVie — which needed a big franchise like Botox. And it was no big surprise to see him riding the SPAC wave into a recent $1 billion-plus deal that left him in the executive chairman’s seat at an aesthetics outfit — now redubbed The Beauty Health Company — holding a big chunk of the equity.

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'Chang­ing the whole game of drug dis­cov­ery': Leg­endary R&D vet Roger Perl­mut­ter leaps back in­to work as a biotech CEO

Roger Perlmutter needs no introduction to anyone remotely involved in biopharma. As the R&D chief first at Amgen and then Merck, he’s built a stellar reputation and a prolific career steering new drugs toward the market for everything from cancer to infectious diseases.

But for years, he’s also held a less known title: science partner at The Column Group, where he’s regularly consulted about the various ideas the VCs had for new startups.

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Ad­comm splits slight­ly in fa­vor of FDA ap­prov­ing Chemo­Cen­tryx’s rare dis­ease drug

The FDA’s Arthritis Advisory Committee on Thursday voted 10 for and 8 against the approval of ChemoCentryx’s $CCXI investigational drug avacopan as a treatment for adults with a rare and serious disease known as anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic autoantibody (ANCA)-vasculitis.

The vote on whether the FDA should approve the drug was preceded by a split vote of 9 to 9 on whether the efficacy data support approval, and 10 to 8 that the safety profile of avacopan is adequate enough to support approval.

Drug pric­ing watch­dog joins the cho­rus of crit­ics on Bio­gen's ad­u­canum­ab: What about charg­ing $2,560 per year?

As if Biogen’s aducanumab isn’t controversial enough, the researchers at drug pricing watchdog ICER have drawn up the contours of a new debate: If the therapy does get approved for Alzheimer’s by June, what price should it command?

Their answer: At most $8,290 per year — and perhaps as little as $2,560.

Even at the top of the range, the proposed price is a fraction of the $50,000 that Wall Street has reportedly come to expect (although RBC analyst Brian Abrahams puts the consensus figure at $11.5K). With critics, including experts on the FDA’s advisory committee, making their fierce opposition to aducanumab’s approval loud and clear, the pricing pressure adds one extra wrinkle Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos doesn’t need as he orders full-steam preparation for a launch.