Google helps boost Grit­stone’s neoanti­gen R&D gam­ble to $195M as re­searchers prep for first hu­man study

Grit­stone On­col­o­gy launched one of the most promi­nent neoanti­gen R&D ef­forts in the in­dus­try with a $102 mil­lion mega-round two years ago. And now the biotech is lin­ing up its first big clin­i­cal for­ay — while lay­ing the foun­da­tion for an even­tu­al mar­ket launch — with an­oth­er mega-round that weighs in at $92.7 mil­lion.

This biotech is a prime ex­am­ple of the ven­ture com­mu­ni­ty’s will­ing­ness to go deep and long in an at­tempt to de­liv­er a lead­ing com­pa­ny in the hunt for new tech­nolo­gies to fight life-threat­en­ing dis­eases. And part of that gam­ble in­cludes con­struct­ing new man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties that can sup­port the de­vel­op­ment of per­son­al­ized ther­a­pies — a blue­print that Grit­stone is com­mit­ted to.

An­drew Allen, Grit­stone

Lil­ly Asia Ven­tures took the lead on the round, with par­tic­i­pa­tion from GV (for­mer­ly Google Ven­tures), Bei­jing-based Trini­tas Cap­i­tal and Alexan­dria Ven­ture In­vest­ments, all new in­vestors and an ex­am­ple of the grow­ing amount of Chi­nese in­vest­ment cap­i­tal mak­ing its way in­to US biotechs. All ex­ist­ing in­vestors are al­so all par­tic­i­pat­ing in the round, in­clud­ing Ver­sant Ven­tures, The Col­umn Group, Clarus Funds and Fra­zier Health­care Part­ners.

Some of their new mon­ey will go to com­plet­ing a 43,000-square-foot man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ty in Pleasan­ton, CA.

Biotech goals don’t get much more am­bi­tious than what you’ll see at Grit­stone. Re­searchers are build­ing a plat­form tech aimed at iden­ti­fy­ing the rare mu­ta­tions that can be trans­lat­ed in­to per­son­al­ized neoanti­gen ther­a­pies for a slate of can­cers. And the biotech is prepar­ing to take its first shot at non-small cell lung can­cer with a tri­al set to launch in the mid­dle of next year.

You can find more than 300 mu­ta­tions in a pa­tient’s ex­ome that can be rel­e­vant to the unique neoanti­gen pro­fil­ing process for lung can­cer, Grit­stone CEO An­drew Allen tells me. But on­ly 1% — or three of them — will ac­tu­al­ly have ther­a­peu­tic val­ue. Find­ing that nee­dle in the prover­bial haystack re­quires the 65 staffers at Grit­stone to do their own se­quenc­ing, while de­vel­op­ing their own in-house deep learn­ing tech­nol­o­gy that can be ef­fec­tive in spot­ting the right mu­ta­tions.

This new round gets Grit­stone in­to the clin­ic, with proof-of-con­cept da­ta sched­uled to ar­rive in 2019 and the ini­tial man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties they’ll need for the weeks-long ap­proach re­quired to go from biop­sy to se­quenc­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing and then back to the pa­tient in an in­tra­mus­cu­lar in­jec­tion ther­a­py.

Allen is acute­ly aware of the va­ri­ety of ef­forts un­der­way to get out in front and de­liv­er the first neoanti­gen com­mer­cial pro­gram. He says there are two key mea­sures that will dic­tate which com­pa­ny is first.

First up: Iden­ti­fy­ing the right neoanti­gens for the treat­ment. Num­ber two: Learn­ing how to de­liv­er the anti­gens in a way that dri­ves the most ef­fec­tive as­sault of CD8-pos­i­tive T cells on can­cer cells. That weaponiza­tion tech led Gri­s­tone to fo­cus on vi­ral vec­tors in a “high­ly ad­ju­vant­ed” ap­proach to ther­a­py.

There are some sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween this nascent field and CAR-T, the new per­son­al­ized can­cer ther­a­py that has just seen the first big OK. But Allen tells me there are some im­por­tant dis­tinc­tions.

One of the biggest, he says, is that Grit­stone wants its ther­a­pies de­liv­ered in com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters where most of the ac­tu­al treat­ment in the US is done — rather than the aca­d­e­m­ic cen­ters and hand­ful of qual­i­fied lo­ca­tions where CAR-T will be ad­min­is­tered.

That all de­pends on a new tech that has to be built in­to a com­mer­cial mod­el from the ground up. What’s that go­ing to cost?

“We haven’t worked out the fi­nal num­ber,” Allen tells me. A lot will de­pend on the mag­ni­tude of clin­i­cal ef­fect. “What we do know is that to do this se­ri­ous­ly is a ma­jor un­der­tak­ing.”

Cer­tain­ly an IPO is like­ly, when the time is ripe and there’s some­thing tan­gi­ble for gen­er­al­ists to look at. Part­ner­ships are a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­i­ty, which Allen says will prob­a­bly be built around “shared” anti­gens, where ther­a­pies can be de­vel­oped for spe­cif­ic buck­ets of pa­tients rather than on a one-on-one ba­sis.

In the mean­time, the ven­ture part­ners ap­pear ready to go all the way with this one.

Is a pow­er­house Mer­ck team prepar­ing to leap past Roche — and leave Gilead and Bris­tol My­ers be­hind — in the race to TIG­IT dom­i­na­tion?

Roche caused quite a stir at ASCO with its first look at some positive — but not so impressive — data for their combination of Tecentriq with their anti-TIGIT drug tiragolumab. But some analysts believe that Merck is positioned to make a bid — soon — for the lead in the race to a second-wave combo immuno-oncology approach with its own ambitious early-stage program tied to a dominant Keytruda.

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Leen Kawas, Athira CEO (Athira)

Can a small biotech suc­cess­ful­ly tack­le an Ever­est climb like Alzheimer’s? Athi­ra has $85M and some in­flu­en­tial back­ers ready to give it a shot

There haven’t been a lot of big venture rounds for biotech companies looking to run a Phase II study in Alzheimer’s.

The field has been a disaster over the past decade. Amyloid didn’t pan out as a target — going down in a litany of Phase III failures — and is now making its last stand at Biogen. Tau is a comer, but when you look around and all you see is destruction, the idea of backing a startup trying to find complex cocktails to swing the course of this devilishly complicated memory-wasting disease would daunt the pluckiest investors.

BiTE® Plat­form and the Evo­lu­tion To­ward Off-The-Shelf Im­muno-On­col­o­gy Ap­proach­es

Despite rapid advances in the field of immuno-oncology that have transformed the cancer treatment landscape, many cancer patients are still left behind.1,2 Not every person has access to innovative therapies designed specifically to treat his or her disease. Many currently available immuno-oncology-based approaches and chemotherapies have brought long-term benefits to some patients — but many patients still need other therapeutic options.3

GSK presents case to ex­pand use of its lu­pus drug in pa­tients with kid­ney dis­ease, but the field is evolv­ing. How long will the mo­nop­oly last?

In 2011, GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta became the first biologic so far to win approval for lupus patients. Nine years on, the British drugmaker has unveiled detailed positive results from a study testing the drug in lupus patients with associated kidney disease — a post-marketing requirement from the initial FDA approval.

Lupus is a drug developer’s nightmare. In the last six decades, there has been just one FDA approval (Benlysta), with the field resembling a graveyard in recent years with a string of failures including UCB and Biogen’s late-stage flop, as well as defeats in Xencor and Sanofi’s programs. One of the main reasons the success has eluded researchers is because lupus, akin to cancer, is not just one disease — it really is a disease of many diseases, noted Al Roy, executive director of Lupus Clinical Investigators Network, an initiative of New York-based Lupus Research Alliance that claims it is the world’s leading private funder of lupus research, in an interview.

Covid-19 roundup: EU ready to ne­go­ti­ate vac­cine ac­cess with $2.7B fund; Bei­jing ar­rests ex-Bio­gen staffer who flew while in­fect­ed

For months now, the US government has doled out unprecedented grants to vaccine developers in hopes of speeding the completion of a Covid-19 candidate, even if that meant putting hundreds of millions or billions behind efforts that ultimately failed. Now, the European Union may do the same.

The EU is planning to use a $2.7 billion rainy day fund to make advance purchases of vaccine candidates, Reuters reports. The news comes a day after the Trump Administration reportedly settled on the five finalists for its Operation Warp Speed, all of whom will get significant funding and other US assistance to finish testing and scale up their vaccine candidates.

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José Basel­ga finds promise in new class of RNA-mod­i­fy­ing can­cer tar­gets, lock­ing in 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams with $55M

Having dived early into some of the RNA breakthroughs of the last decades — betting on Moderna’s mRNA tech and teaming up with Silence on the siRNA front — AstraZeneca is jumping into a new arena: going after proteins that modify RNA.

Their partner of choice is Accent Therapeutics, which is receiving $55 million in upfront payment to steer a selected preclinical program through to the end of Phase I. After AstraZeneca takes over, the Lexington, MA-based startup has the option to co-develop and co-commercialize in the US — and collect up to $1.1 billion in milestones in the long run. The deal also covers two other potential drug candidates.

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New safe­ty da­ta ex­pose po­ten­tial weak­ness as Pfiz­er's abroc­i­tinib takes on Dupix­ent in eczema

Last September, when Pfizer celebrated positive data from a second Phase III study of abrocitinib, many watchers applauded the efficacy but were still waiting to see whether the JAK1 inhibitor is “safe enough to be a formidable competitor to Dupixent,” the clear leader in the atopic dermatitis field. The full slate of safety data are now out and, according to one analyst, the answer is: probably not.

Doug Throckmorton speaks via video conference to the Senate Finance Committee, June 2, 2020 (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, AP Images)

FDA de­fends its over­sight of for­eign drugs amid Sen­ate, GAO crit­i­cism

During a Senate Committee on Finance hearing Tuesday, officials from the FDA responded to criticism from senators and a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on its oversight of foreign drug manufacturers.

The hearing follows FDA’s move to halt most foreign inspections in March as a result of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Much of the criticism centered on the agency’s practice of giving foreign facilities advanced notice of inspections while most domestic surveillance inspections are unannounced, as well as US reliance on foreign drug manufacturing.

Pfiz­er’s Doug Gior­dano has $500M — and some ad­vice — to of­fer a cer­tain breed of 'break­through' biotech

So let’s say you’re running a cutting-edge, clinical-stage biotech, probably public, but not necessarily so, which could see some big advantages teaming up with some marquee researchers, picking up say $50 million to $75 million dollars in a non-threatening minority equity investment that could take you to the next level.

Doug Giordano might have some thoughts on how that could work out.

The SVP of business development at the pharma giant has helped forge a new fund called the Pfizer Breakthrough Growth Initiative. And he has $500 million of Pfizer’s money to put behind 7 to 10 — or so — biotech stocks that fit that general description.

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