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.

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

The End­points 11: They've got mad mon­ey and huge am­bi­tions. It's time to go big or go home

These days, selecting a group of private biotechs for the Endpoints 11 spotlight begins with a sprint to get ahead of IPOs and the M&A teams at Big Pharma. I’ve had a couple of face plants earlier this year, watching some of the biotechs on my short list choose a quick leap onto Nasdaq or into the arms of a buyer.

Vividion, you would have been a great pick for the Endpoints 11. I’m sorry I missed you.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis Gene Ther­a­pies? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1,500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Jean Bennett (Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP Images)

Lux­tur­na in­ven­tor Jean Ben­nett starts a new gene ther­a­py com­pa­ny to tack­le rare dis­eases left be­hind by phar­ma, VCs

A few years ago Jean Bennett found herself in a surprising place for a woman who invented the first gene therapy ever approved in the United States: No one, it seemed, wanted her work.

Bennett, who designed and co-developed Luxturna, approved in 2018 for a rare form of blindness, had kept building new gene therapies for eye diseases at her University of Pennsylvania lab. But although the results in animals looked promising, pharma companies and investors kept turning down the pedigreed ophthalmology professor.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 117,900+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

FDA+ roundup: Bs­U­FA III ready for show­time, court tells FDA to re-work com­pound­ing plan, new guid­ance up­dates and more

The FDA has now spelled out what exactly will be included in the third iteration of Biosimilar User Fee Act (BsUFA) from 2023 through 2027, which similarly to the prescription drug deal, sets fees that industry has to pay for submitting applications, in exchange for firm timelines that the agency must meet.

This latest deal includes several sweeteners for the biosimilar industry, which has yet to make great strides in the US market, with shorter review timelines for safety labeling updates and updates to add or remove an indication that does not contain efficacy data.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

Maureen Hillenmeyer, Hexagon Bio CEO

Hexa­gon Bio rais­es $61M to con­tin­ue ef­forts to turn fun­gi in­to drugs

A year after raising a $47 million launch round, the fungi-loving drug hunters at Hexagon Bio have more than doubled their coffers.

Hexagon announced today that it raised another $61 million for its efforts to design cancer and infectious disease drugs based on insights mined from the DNA in millions of species of fungi. The new financing brings Hexagon’s committed funding to over $108 million.

Blue­bird sends blood dis­or­der drug to FDA for ap­proval; CG On­col­o­gy en­ters col­lab­o­ra­tion with Roche for Tecen­triq

Bluebird bio announced it completed the rolling submission of its BLA to the FDA for betibeglogene autotemcel gene therapy.

The therapy, designed for patients with beta-thalassemia who require regular red blood cell transfusions, was previously granted breakthrough therapy designation for treating transfusion-dependent beta-thalassemia (TDT). If approved, beti-cel will be the first hematopoietic stem cell ex-vivo gene therapy for patients in the US.