GSK hands cash and tech to a biotech start­up point­ed down the same R&D road they want to trav­el

Glax­o­SmithK­line has chipped in to a $30 mil­lion start­up round for a biotech that’s set­ting out on a new re­search mis­sion which fits neat­ly in­to the phar­ma gi­ant’s own fresh­ly re-de­fined phar­ma R&D strat­e­gy. It’s not a big-mon­ey deal by any means; GSK’s in for £5 mil­lion. But it re­flects the phar­ma gi­ant’s transat­lantic in­ter­ests and ex­ten­sive ties to aca­d­e­m­ic dis­cov­ery teams.

Hal Bar­ron

GSK came in­to the syn­di­cate for the Ox­ford-based up­start along­side SV Health In­vestors, Sofinno­va Part­ners and the Long­wood Fund, con­tribut­ing some of its own ex­per­tise fo­cused on the in­ter­play of meta­bol­ic path­ways and im­mune cells in the de­vel­op­ment of can­cer and au­toim­mune dis­eases to get Sit­ryx up and run­ning. GSK’s new R&D chief Hal Bar­ron has tapped im­munol­o­gy as one of his core fo­cus­es, with a big in­ter­est in im­muno-on­col­o­gy and au­toim­mune work.

Ax­el Hoos

This kind of im­munol­o­gy re­search deals with both sides of the im­mune cell’s role in health — dri­ving dis­ease as well as at­tack­ing can­cer cells. It’s al­so a pre­clin­i­cal ef­fort, which has been a cen­tral fea­ture — so far — of GSK’s new ap­proach to clos­ing one long and large­ly un­suc­cess­ful chap­ter. There’s a new crew un­der Bar­ron try­ing to come up with a slate of block­busters in the phar­ma R&D group that can help re­place the big Ad­vair fran­chise, which is fac­ing loom­ing gener­ic com­pe­ti­tion af­ter a lengthy stay of ex­e­cu­tion.


GSK has par­tic­u­lar­ly been re­fo­cus­ing on its work in on­col­o­gy af­ter hand­ing over its late-stage can­cer drug pipeline to No­var­tis, while keep­ing an ear­ly-stage group un­der Ax­el Hoos, which is now step­ping up its pro­file in the com­pa­ny as Bar­ron seeks to set a new di­rec­tion.

Sit­ryx will bank heav­i­ly on its brain trust, with con­sid­er­able aca­d­e­m­ic and in­dus­try ex­pe­ri­ence ex­plor­ing the role of im­mune cells. The founders in­clude:

  • Houman Ashrafi­an, a part­ner at SV Health In­vestors.
  • Luke O’Neill, a pro­fes­sor of bio­chem­istry at Trin­i­ty Col­lege Dublin and an in­flam­ma­tion ex­pert who has been ex­plor­ing a “mol­e­c­u­lar un­der­stand­ing of in­nate im­mu­ni­ty and in­flam­ma­tion.”
  • Jonathan Pow­ell, an on­col­o­gy ex­pert at Johns Hop­kins whose lab has been work­ing on TCRs and anti­gen recog­ni­tion.
  • Jeff Rath­mell, the di­rec­tor of the Van­der­bilt Cen­ter for Im­muno­bi­ol­o­gy.
  • Michael Rosen­blum, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor and UCSF School of Med­i­cine, where he’s been study­ing reg­u­la­to­ry T cells.
  • Ex-GSKer Paul-Pe­ter Tak, the for­mer chief im­munol­o­gy of­fi­cer at GSK who played a lead role in an­ti-in­flam­ma­to­ry drug de­vel­op­ment, who’s al­so a pro­fes­sor at Am­s­ter­dam Uni­ver­si­ty Med­ical Cen­tre.
Neil Weir

The deal rais­es fresh ques­tions over the time hori­zon Bar­ron has in mind for GSK’s phar­ma group. Over the past decade the phar­ma re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion has been broad­ly re­or­ga­nized, down­sized, sub­stan­tial­ly re­lo­cat­ed and re­de­fined, af­ter a se­ries of big swings that whiffed in Phase III. If Bar­ron stays fo­cused on ear­ly-stage work in ge­net­ics and im­munol­o­gy, as he’s said, he’s go­ing to face grow­ing ques­tions on just what the time­line is for a late-stage at­tempt to do big things — out­side of Vi­iV’s work on HIV and the high-pro­file ef­fort in the vac­cines arm.

Neil Weir, the for­mer SVP of dis­cov­ery at UCB, is head­ing the com­pa­ny as its CEO.

“Im­munol­o­gy is at the heart of GSK’s new ap­proach to R&D,” not­ed John Lep­ore, se­nior vice pres­i­dent re­search, GSK. “Through our Im­munol­o­gy Net­work, we be­lieve the emerg­ing field of im­munome­tab­o­lism that Sit­ryx is fo­cus­ing on has the po­ten­tial to bring new ther­a­peu­tic op­por­tu­ni­ties to pa­tients for a broad range of dis­eases in­clud­ing can­cer.

From top left to bot­tom right: Houman Ashrafi­an, Luke O’Neill (DUN­CAN HULL), Jonathan Pow­ell, Jeff Rath­mell, Michael Rosen­blum, Paul-Pe­ter Tak.

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.