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.

It’s fi­nal­ly over: Bio­gen, Ei­sai scrap big Alzheimer’s PhI­I­Is af­ter a pre­dictable BACE cat­a­stro­phe rais­es safe­ty fears

Months after analysts and investors called on Biogen and Eisai to scrap their BACE drug for Alzheimer’s and move on in the wake of a string of late-stage failures and rising safety fears, the partners have called it quits. And they said they were dropping the drug — elenbecestat — after the independent monitoring board raised concerns about…safety.

We don’t know exactly what researchers found in this latest catastrophe, but the companies noted in their release that investigators had determined that the drug was flunking the risk/benefit analysis.

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Lisa M. DeAngelis, MSKCC

MSK picks brain can­cer ex­pert Lisa DeAn­ge­lis as its next CMO — fol­low­ing José Basel­ga’s con­tro­ver­sial ex­it

It’s official. Memorial Sloan Kettering has picked a brain cancer expert as its new physician-in-chief and CMO, replacing José Baselga, who left under a cloud after being singled out by The New York Times and ProPublica for failing to properly air his lucrative industry ties.

His replacement, who now will be in charge of MSK’s cutting-edge research work as well as the cancer care delivered by hundreds of practitioners, is Lisa M. DeAngelis. DeAngelis had been chair of the neurology department and co-founder of MSK’s brain tumor center and was moved in to the acting CMO role in the wake of Baselga’s departure.

Penn team adapts CAR-T tech, reengi­neer­ing mouse cells to treat car­diac fi­bro­sis

After establishing itself as one of the pioneer research centers in the world for CAR-T cancer therapies, creating new attack vehicles to eradicate cancer cells, a team at Penn Medicine has begun the tricky transition of using the basic technology for heart repair work.

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Tal Zaks. Moderna

The mR­NA uni­corn Mod­er­na has more ear­ly-stage hu­man da­ta it wants to show off — reach­ing new peaks in prov­ing the po­ten­tial

The whole messenger RNA field has attracted billions of dollars in public and private investor cash gambled on the prospect of getting in on the ground floor. And this morning Boston-based Moderna, one of the leaders in the field, wants to show off a few more of the cards it has to play to prove to you that they’re really in the game.

The whole hand, of course, has yet to be dealt. And there’s no telling who gets to walk with a share of the pot. But any cards on display at this point — especially after being accused of keeping its deck under lock and key — will attract plenty of attention from some very wary, and wired, observers.

“In terms of the complexity and unmet need,” says Tal Zaks, the chief medical officer, “this is peak for what we’ve accomplished.”

Moderna has two Phase I studies it wants to talk about now.

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It's not per­fect, but it's a good start: FDA pan­elists large­ly en­dorse Aim­mune's peanut al­ler­gy ther­a­py

Two days after a fairly benign review from FDA staff, an independent panel of experts largely endorsed the efficacy and safety of Aimmune’s peanut allergy therapy, laying the groundwork for approval with a risk evaluation and mitigation strategy (REMS).

Traditionally, peanut allergies are managed by avoidance, but the threat of accidental exposure cannot be nullified. Some allergists have devised a way to dose patients off-label with peanut protein derived from supermarket products to wean them off their allergies. But the idea behind Aimmune’s product was to standardize the peanut protein, and track the process of desensitization — so when accidental exposure in the real world invariably occurs, patients are less likely to experience a life-threatening allergic reaction.

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Rit­ter bombs fi­nal PhI­II for sole lac­tose in­tol­er­ance drug — shares plum­met

More than two years ago Ritter Pharmaceuticals managed to find enough silver lining in its Phase IIb/III study — after missing the top-line mark — to propel its lactose intolerance toward a confirmatory trial. But as it turned out, the enthusiasm only set the biotech and its investors up to be sorely disappointed.

This time around there’s little left to salvage. Not only did RP-G28 fail to beat placebo in reducing lactose intolerance symptoms, patients in the treatment group actually averaged a smaller improvement. On a composite score measuring symptoms like abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and gas, patients given the drug had a mean reduction of 3.159 while the placebo cohort saw a 3.420 drop on average (one-sided p-value = 0.0106).

Ear­ly snap­shot of Ad­verum's eye gene ther­a­py sparks con­cern about vi­sion loss

An early-stage update on Adverum Biotechnologies’ intravitreal gene therapy has triggered investor concern, after patients with wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) saw their vision deteriorate, despite signs that the treatment is improving retinal anatomy.

Adverum, on Wednesday, unveiled 24-week data from the OPTIC trial of its experimental therapy, ADVM-022, in six patients who have been administered with one dose of the therapy. On average, patients in the trial had severe disease with an average of 6.2 anti-VEGF injections in the eight months prior to screening and an average annualized injection frequency of 9.3 injections.

Alex Ar­faei trades his an­a­lyst's post for a new role as biotech VC; Sanofi vet heads to Vi­for

Too often, Alex Arfaei arrived too late. 

An analyst at BMO Capital Markets, he’d meet with biotech or pharmaceutical heads for their IPO or secondary funding and his brain, trained on a biology degree and six years at Merck and Endo, would spring with questions: Why this biomarker? Why this design? Why not this endpoint? Not that he could do anything about it. These execs were coming for clinical money; their decisions had been made and finalized long ago.

Arde­lyx bags its first FDA OK for IBS, set­ting up a show­down with Al­ler­gan, Iron­wood

In the first of what it hopes will be a couple of major regulatory milestones for its new drug, Ardelyx has bagged an FDA approval to market Ibsrela (tenapanor) for irritable bowel syndrome.

The drug’s first application will be for IBS with constipation (IBS-C), inhibiting sodium-hydrogen exchanger NHE3 in the GI tract in such a way as to increase bowel movements and decrease abdominal pain. This comes on the heels of two successful Phase III trials.