Good­bye, San Fran­cis­co. Stan­ford spin­out heads to Hous­ton af­ter bag­ging a $20M CPRIT grant

Ray Tabib­i­azar

Two years ago an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of bio­engi­neer­ing at Stan­ford named Jen­nifer Cochran and co-au­thor Am­a­to Gi­ac­cia came up with a new ap­proach for throw­ing a mon­key wrench in­to the me­chan­ics of metas­ta­sis. Pick­ing up on the role that a pair of Gas6 pro­teins play when they link to two Axl pro­teins — a sub­fam­i­ly of re­cep­tor ty­ro­sine ki­nas­es found on the sur­face of can­cer cells, al­low­ing them to roam from a tu­mor — they de­vel­oped a de­coy pro­tein that harm­less­ly binds to Gas6 and scram­bles the un­teth­er­ing process, ef­fec­tive­ly tak­ing it out of the bi­o­log­ic loop.

The ap­proach worked to blunt metas­ta­sis in mice, and a low-pro­file start­up named Ru­ga Cor­po­ra­tion land­ed the rights — one of a wave of biotech star­tups in the Bay Area.

And this one came with a very promi­nent en­dorse­ment.

“It is a beau­ti­ful piece of bio­chem­istry and has some nu­ances that make it par­tic­u­lar­ly ex­cit­ing,” not­ed Glenn Dra­noff. At the time Dra­noff was a Dana-Far­ber in­ves­ti­ga­tor. Dra­noff joined NI­BR last year to run their im­muno-on­col­o­gy work.

To­day, Ru­ga Corp. is of­fi­cial­ly chang­ing its name to Ar­a­vive, and it’s mak­ing an un­usu­al switch in lo­cales, chang­ing its Bay Area ad­dress in the heart of a top biotech hub for Hous­ton, with a $20 mil­lion in­jec­tion from the Lone Star state’s Can­cer Pre­ven­tion & Re­search In­sti­tute of Texas, bet­ter known as CPRIT.

Gi­ac­cia is now the CSO and co-founder at Ar­a­vive. Ray Tabib­i­azar, a for­mer VC part­ner at Bay City Cap­i­tal, is the CEO. To­geth­er, they’re fo­cused on get­ting their drug in­to the clin­ic for acute myeloid leukemia.

“It’s un­usu­al in that this is the largest amount giv­en (by CPRIT) to one com­pa­ny,” Tabib­i­azar tells me

In the com­ing months the CEO says we should look out for new pub­li­ca­tions spelling out a sec­ond-gen ap­proach to what the Stan­ford team put out in 2014. That’s what is point­ed to the clin­ic in 2017, he adds. And Tabib­i­azar is putting to­geth­er a new fi­nanc­ing round to ful­ly fund the ear­ly stages of de­vel­op­ment work.

As of now, the com­pa­ny has a staff of about 15, adds the CEO, which will grow to a max­i­mum of about 20 for this stage of the game. As for the move to Texas, Tabib­i­azar adds, it makes a lot of sense to get clos­er to in­ves­ti­ga­tors at Bay­lor and MD An­der­son, where they’ve al­ready been do­ing work on this tar­get.

CPRIT has been rais­ing the ante on its biotech bet this month af­ter a four-year bout of on-again, off-again con­tro­ver­sies.

Hous­ton-based Bel­licum Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals just won a rec­om­men­da­tion for a $16.9 mil­lion CPRIT grant to sup­port its clin­i­cal work for BPX-501 in pe­di­atric AML. And that was part of $93 mil­lion in grants is­sued No­vem­ber 16.

The state set up the $3 bil­lion CPRIT bond ini­tia­tive to sup­port can­cer re­search back in 2007, and it’s been in and out of the head­lines over ac­cu­sa­tions of fa­voritism and bias re­lat­ed to some of the biotechs it’s backed as well as its ties to three promi­nent in­sti­tu­tions: MD An­der­son in Hous­ton, UT South­west­ern in Dal­las, and Bay­lor — which have col­lec­tive­ly snared close to half of the cash hand­ed out so far.

While the state project has played a promi­nent role in aca­d­e­m­ic re­search, the de­vel­op­ment of a biotech hub has ad­vanced in fits and starts, with MD An­der­son step­ping up and help­ing with a se­ries of spin­outs and col­lab­o­ra­tions over the past year.

J&J In­no­va­tions al­so pro­vid­ed a big as­sist of its own, adding a JLabs in­cu­ba­tor in Hous­ton to help fos­ter biotech star­tups. Ar­a­vive can help Texas make the case that it’s al­so bring­ing in new com­pa­nies.

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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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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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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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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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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New stan­dard of care? FDA hands Pfiz­er, Mer­ck KGaA an OK for Baven­cio in blad­der can­cer

The breakthrough therapy designation Pfizer and Merck KGaA notched for Bavencio in bladder cancer has quickly paved way for a full approval.

The PD-L1 drug is now sanctioned as a first-line maintenance treatment for patients with locally advanced or metastatic urothelial carcinoma, applicable in cases where cancer hasn’t progressed after platinum-containing chemotherapy.

Petros Grivas, the principal investigator of the supporting Phase III JAVELIN Bladder 100, called the approval “one of the most significant advances in the treatment paradigm in this setting in 30 years.”

Covid-19 roundup: Vac­cines will need to beat place­bo by 50% to qual­i­fy for FDA OK; UK tri­al drops Kale­tra

The FDA will set the bar for approving a Covid-19 vaccine at 50% efficacy, the Wall Street Journal reported, meaning any successful candidate will have to reduce the risk of coronavirus disease by at least half compared to placebo.

That requirement is part of guidance that the agency is set to release later today, laying out detailed criteria for vaccine developers — some of whom are eyeing an OK by the end of the year, in line with expectations at Operation Warp Speed.

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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.