Grail vet Ba­jaj aims for some broad in­flu­ence with Fore­site bucks

Biotech has lost an­oth­er top ex­ec­u­tive to the al­lure of fi­nance. Vikram Ba­jaj, just one year in­to his job as chief sci­en­tif­ic of­fi­cer at Grail, has joined the ranks of Sil­i­con Val­ley VCs.

Vikram Ba­jaj

Ba­jaj is tak­ing a full-time gig as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of SF-based Fore­site Cap­i­tal, a VC and pri­vate eq­ui­ty firm where Ba­jaj hopes to have a big­ger im­pact mov­ing sci­ence for­ward. Fore­site closed a $450 mil­lion fund back in 2015, and ap­pears to still be mak­ing in­vest­ments from that pool. With $1.2 bil­lion in as­sets un­der man­age­ment, Fore­site has made bets on a few big names in­clud­ing Juno, Nan­tK­west, and Grail, Ba­jaj’s for­mer em­ploy­er.

Grail is a high-fly­ing start­up try­ing to make a test that de­tects can­cer ear­ly. Oth­er than its am­bi­tious goals, Grail is prob­a­bly best known for rais­ing $1 bil­lion in un­der two years. It’s al­so known for its c-suite of ex-Googlers (al­though many are now mov­ing on).

But work­ing at a whizbang start­up ap­pears to have on­ly whet­ted Ba­jaj’s ap­petite for in­no­va­tion. He tells me en­ter­ing the VC world is ex­cit­ing be­cause ac­cess to mon­ey means he’ll have a wider im­pact.

“It puts me in a unique po­si­tion to have in­flu­ence in a va­ri­ety of ar­eas, not just one com­pa­ny, but across dif­fer­ent seg­ments of our in­dus­try,” Ba­jaj said.

He’s par­tic­u­lar­ly in­ter­est­ed in the com­pa­nies that com­bine da­ta sci­ence and hu­man bi­ol­o­gy, which is sort of his do­main. On top of be­ing the co-founder of Ver­i­ly (for­mer­ly Google Life Sci­ences), Ba­jaj al­so led lab­o­ra­to­ry and da­ta sci­ence teams at Grail. And as a for­mer aca­d­e­m­ic re­searcher, Ba­jaj and his col­lab­o­ra­tors have de­vel­oped nan­otech and oth­er tools that were lat­er com­mer­cial­ized by star­tups.

Ba­jaj said per­son­al­ized med­i­cine — with the help of da­ta sci­ence — is on­ly get­ting start­ed. He thinks it’s a good time to en­ter this space as an in­vestor, with cash to move the right tech­nolo­gies for­ward.

“I think we’re poised for mas­sive change as se­quenc­ing costs go down and med­i­cine be­comes more pre­cise as a re­sult of this ex­plo­sion of da­ta,” Ba­jaj said.

Fore­site plans to tap his knowl­edge of the space to spot promis­ing star­tups to in­vest in.

“I’ve known of Vik years through his pre­vi­ous roles,” Fore­site’s CEO Jim Tanan­baum tells me. “His ex­per­tise in the field and team-ori­ent­ed and hum­ble ap­proach to his work makes him an ex­cel­lent ad­di­tion to our high­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive team here at Fore­site Cap­i­tal. He brings a unique mix of skills and ex­pe­ri­ence that will be par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful as we ex­pand on our in­vest­ments in pre­ci­sion med­i­cine.”

Ba­jaj said Fore­site’s stage-ag­nos­tic in­vest­ment strat­e­gy was re­fresh­ing, and a ma­jor rea­son he want­ed to join the firm.

“There are no ar­bi­trary bar­ri­ers to in­vest­ing at a par­tic­u­lar stage,” Ba­jaj said. “We can in­vest any­where from the seed stage through to pub­lic liq­uid­i­ty and be­yond. I like this ap­proach be­cause health care star­tups are dif­fer­ent from oth­er tech­nol­o­gy star­tups: the time hori­zon is longer, the prob­lems more com­plex, and the reg­u­la­to­ry en­vi­ron­ment more chal­leng­ing to nav­i­gate.”

Ba­jaj will be sta­tioned at the com­pa­ny’s SF of­fice in the Transamer­i­ca Pyra­mid.

What Will it Take to Re­al­ize the Promise and Po­ten­tial of Im­mune Cell Ther­a­pies?

What does it take to get to the finish line with a new cancer therapy – fast? With approvals in place and hundreds of immune cell therapy candidates in the pipeline, the global industry is poised to create a fundamental shift in cancer treatments towards precision medicine. At the same time, unique challenges associated with cell and process complexity present manufacturing bottlenecks that delay speed to market and heighten cost of goods sold (COGS) — these hurdles must be overcome to make precision treatments an option for every cancer patient. This series of articles highlights some of the key manufacturing challenges associated with the production of cell-based cancer therapies as well as the solutions needed to transcend them. Automation, process knowledge, scalability, and assured supply of high-quality starting material and reagents are all critical to realizing the full potential of CAR-based therapies and sustaining the momentum achieved in recent years. The articles will highlight leading-edge technologies that incorporate these features to integrate across workflows, accelerate timelines and reduce COGS – along with how these approaches are enabling the biopharmaceutical industry to cross the finish line faster with new treatment options for patients in need.

The biggest ques­tions fac­ing gene ther­a­py, the XLMTM com­mu­ni­ty, and Astel­las af­ter fourth pa­tient death

After three patients died last year in an Astellas gene therapy trial, the company halted the study and began figuring out how to safely get the program back on track. They would, executives eventually explained, cut the dose by more than half and institute a battery of other measures to try to prevent the same thing from happening again.

Then tragically, Astellas announced this week that the first patient to receive the new regimen had died, just weeks after administration.

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EQRx chairman Alexis Borisy and CEO Melanie Nallichieri

EQRx, CStone un­furl full lung can­cer da­ta for PD-L1 drug in what the part­ners are call­ing a first

As a self-stylized drug pricing disruptor, EQRx has high hopes for its lead PD-(L)1 to offer proof of concept for the entire business model. After touting a win back in May, the biotech is back with full data in lung cancer that could back up an approval.

Patients dosed with EQRx and CStone Pharmaceuticals’ sugemalimab posted median progression-free survival of 9 months compared with 5.8 months for patients given placebo (p=0.0026), according to full data from the Phase III GEMSTONE-301 study in Stage III non-small cell lung cancer set to be presented at this weekend’s #ESMO21.

Amgen VP of R&D David Reese

Am­gen rolls out da­ta for KRAS in­hibitor com­bo study in col­orec­tal can­cer, hop­ing to move on from ug­ly ear­ly re­sults

With the first win for its KRAS inhibitor sotorasib in hand, Amgen is pushing ahead with an aggressive clinical plan to capitalize on its first-to-market standing. The drugmaker thinks combinations — in-house or otherwise — could offer a path forward, and one early readout from that strategy is bearing fruit.

A combination of Amgen’s sotorasib and its EGFR inhibitor Vectibix posted an overall response rate of 27% in 26 patients with advanced colorectal cancer (CRC) with the KRAS-G12C mutation, according to data from the larger Phase Ib/II CODEBREAK 101 study set to present at this weekend’s virtual ESMO Congress.

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As­traZeneca touts Imfinzi im­munother­a­py com­bos for lung can­cer in push to dri­ve PD-L1 drug up­take

Facing the big dogs in the PD-(L)1 space, AstraZeneca has taken its own contender Imfinzi into blockbuster territory in its four years on the market but sees even bigger things for the drug. Combinations could be the key, and early results from a mid-stage test are adding some fuel to that strategy.

Imfinzi combined with one of two investigational immunotherapies — a CD73 antibody dubbed oleclumab or an Innate’s anti-NGK2a named monalizumab — topped Imfinzi alone in terms of overall response and progression-free survival in patients with stage III non-small cell lung cancer whose tumors had not worsened during concurrent chemoradiation, according to interim data from the Phase II COAST trial set to be presented at #ESMO21.

A Pfiz­er part­ner wel­comes ex-ADC Ther­a­peu­tics CMO Jay Fein­gold to the team; Amid tough sled­ding, Im­muno­vant choos­es Eli Lil­ly alum as CFO

→ Last week we told you about the CMO revolving door at ADC Therapeutics, as Joseph Camardo replaced the departing Jay Feingold. The next opportunity for Feingold in the CMO slot has opened up at antibody-drug conjugate and mAb developer Pyxis Oncology, which has added several new execs and scientific advisory board members in recent months, including ex-Immunovant CFO Pamela Yanchik Connealy. Before his tenure at ADC, Feingold was Daiichi Sankyo’s VP of US medical affairs and chairman of the Global Medical Affairs Oversight Committee. Within weeks in March, Pyxis struck a licensing deal with Pfizer for two of its ADCs and raked in $152 million from a Series B round.

Dan O'Day, Gilead CEO (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Eu­ro­pean study finds that Gilead­'s Covid-19 an­tivi­ral remde­sivir shows no clin­i­cal ben­e­fit

Gilead’s remdesivir — or Veklury, as it’s marketed in the US — raked in around $2.8 billion last year as the only FDA-approved antiviral to treat Covid-19. But new data from a European study suggest the drug, which has been given to about half of hospitalized Covid patients in the country, has no actual benefit.

The open-label DisCoVeRy trial enrolled Covid-19 patients across 48 sites in Europe to test a handful of treatments, including remdesivir, lopinavir–ritonavir, lopinavir–ritonavir and interferon beta-1a, and hydroxychloroquine. To participate, patients had to show symptoms for seven days and require oxygen support. A total of 429 patients were randomized to receive remdesivir plus standard of care, while 428 were assigned to standard of care alone.

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Gri­fols drops $1B on Ger­man hold­ing com­pa­ny in con­tin­ued plas­ma push

One Spanish biotech is beefing up its plasma therapy operations, and on Friday, it announced that it’s doing so in a billion-dollar deal.

Grifols is now the largest shareholder of Biotest, a company valued at more than $1.8 billion. By teaming up, the two will try to increase the number of plasma therapies available and increase patient access around the world, Grifols said in a press release.

The company did so by acquiring holding company Tiancheng Pharmaceutical, the Germany-based owner of nearly 90% of Biotest shares, for nearly $1.27 billion. Grifols now owns nearly 90% of Biotest voting rights and almost 45% of the total share capital of Biotest.

Covid-19 roundup: FDA re­veals boost­er ad­comm ques­tion; Eli Lil­ly's an­ti­body cock­tail cleared for pre­ven­tion

The FDA released briefing documents this week from the agency and Pfizer each outlining their arguments for today’s Covid-19 booster shot adcomm, but one thing conspicuously missing was the question on which panel members would be voting. But late Thursday night, regulators published that question.

Adcomm members will be asked whether or not the safety and efficacy data from Pfizer/BioNTech’s original Phase III study “support approval” of a booster shot at least six months after the second dose in individuals older than 16. The question notably excludes the real-world data from Israel and other analyses that Pfizer and the Biden administration had said would be a centerpiece of their arguments for boosters.