Har­vard biotech wiz Greg Ver­dine grabs a $55M A round to build a ground­break­ing biotech

It’s hard not to en­joy talk­ing with Greg Ver­dine about the new biotech com­pa­nies he sets up. Years of teach­ing at Har­vard have honed his skill for trans­lat­ing sci­ence in­to a pithy set of sto­ries that every­one can un­der­stand and get a kick out of.

“What I am re­al­ly pas­sion­ate about is dis­cov­er­ing new types of mol­e­cules that do things that can’t be done by stan­dard small mol­e­cules and an­ti­bod­ies,” he told me in the lead-up to to­day’s for­mal launch of LifeM­ine Ther­a­peu­tics with a $55 mil­lion A round. “I want to go af­ter un­drug­gable tar­gets, get drugs that peo­ple con­sid­er now aren’t doable. The ques­tion is where you go look­ing for this.”

Greg Ver­dine

The an­swer for Ver­dine, this time, is fun­gi.

“Fun­gi have been duk­ing it out with their neigh­bors in the soil for a bil­lion years,” says Ver­dine, “steal­ing the lunch of their cowork­ers, com­pet­ing, and fend­ing off in­vaders us­ing small mol­e­cules as com­pet­i­tive sub­stances.” And it all fits very close­ly with hu­man pro­teins, giv­ing it a good shot at work­ing in hu­mans.

It helps that evo­lu­tion doesn’t obey the same rules that guide med­i­c­i­nal chemists, and now Ver­dine’s new com­pa­ny will re­ly on se­quenc­ing to fol­low this strange path in search of some rad­i­cal new break­throughs in can­cer — a field that has at­tract­ed bil­lions of dol­lars to back a new gen­er­a­tion of ther­a­pies.

To do this, he says, the team has to “grow up fun­gi in­di­vid­u­al­ly, iso­late DNA and se­quence the DNA. Take the DNA and an­a­lyze it for biosyn­thet­ic gene clus­ters; an in­struc­tion set to make a nat­ur­al prod­uct.”

Ver­dine blends mul­ti­ple roles in biotech: Pro­fes­sor, ven­ture part­ner at WuXi Health­care Ven­tures — which seed­ed this new start­up — and now a dou­ble CEO, with his dual role run­ning Fog Phar­ma made eas­i­er by hav­ing both com­pa­nies housed in the same build­ing in Cam­bridge, MA.

Over the years Ver­dine has been one of the most pro­lif­ic start­up artists in the busi­ness, a go-to fig­ure in the in­dus­try who’s helped kick a slate of biotechs in­to ex­is­tence, rang­ing from Enan­ta to Tokai, Aileron and Warp Dri­ve Bio, which he al­so helmed for a time.

Right now the team at LifeM­ine is made up of a dozen sci­en­tists and five DNA spe­cial­ists, where they are fo­cus­ing on pro­grams and tar­gets for the pipeline as they build the plat­form along the way. By mid-2019, Ver­dine ex­pects the crew to ex­pand to about 40 staffers.

It’s still ear­ly days, though.

“We’ve left our­selves 3.5 years to en­ter the clin­ic,” says Ver­dine.

That re­quires some very pa­tient mon­ey, which Ver­dine lined up from WuXi Health­care Ven­tures with a syn­di­cate that in­cludes Fore­site Cap­i­tal, Google Ven­tures (or GV, with Kr­ish­na Yesh­want join­ing the board), Arch Ven­ture Part­ners, Boyu Cap­i­tal, Blue Pool Cap­i­tal, MRL Ven­tures Fund, and Alexan­dria Ven­ture In­vest­ments.

Those blue chip VC names are mix­ing with some mon­ey out of two promi­nent Chi­nese in­vestors, aside from the transpa­cif­ic WuXi op­er­a­tion: Boyu — an in­flu­en­tial pri­vate eq­ui­ty group led by co-founder and part­ner Sean Tong — and Blue Pool.

At this stage of his life, Ver­dine is po­si­tioned at ex­act­ly the right place, and ex­act­ly the right time, for a pricey space shot in­to the biotech uni­verse. The stars have aligned — again.

Biotech and Big Phar­ma: A blue­print for a suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship

Strategic partnerships have long been an important contributor to how drugs are discovered and developed. For decades, big pharma companies have been forming alliances with biotech innovators to increase R&D productivity, expand geographical reach and better manage late-stage commercialization costs.

Noël Brown, Managing Director and Head of Biotechnology Investment Banking, and Greg Wiederrecht, Ph.D., Managing Director in the Global Healthcare Investment Banking Group at RBC Capital Markets, are no strangers to the importance of these tie-ups. Noël has over 20 years of investment banking experience in the industry. Before moving to the banking world in 2015, Greg was the Vice President and Head of External Scientific Affairs (ESA) at Merck, where he was responsible for the scientific assessment of strategic partnership opportunities worldwide.

No­var­tis' sec­ond at­tempt to repli­cate a stun­ning can­cer re­sult falls flat

Novartis’ hopes of turning one of the most surprising trial data points of the last decade into a lung cancer drug has taken another setback.

The Swiss pharma announced Monday that its IL-1 inhibitor canakinumab did not significantly extend the lives or slow the disease progression of patients with previously untreated locally advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer when compared to standard of-care alone.

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Robert Califf (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP Images, File)

As buzz on Califf FDA nom heats up, in­dus­try and agency in­sid­ers of­fer a strong nod for the ‘per­fect’ choice

For once in this long, dramatic road to finding a new FDA commissioner, there’s been some continuity. Both CNN and Politico reported this weekend that Rob Califf met with President Biden to discuss the permanent commish role, following earlier news broken by the Washington Post that all signs point to Califf.

Although there may be a few Democrats who continue to grandstand about the dangers of COI (Califf has worked for Verily, sits on the board of Centessa Pharmaceuticals, and has other ties to industry research), with the pandemic ongoing and the need for some kind of continuity at FDA mounting, Califf is likely to meet the same fate as when he first won Senate confirmation in 2016, by a vote of 89-4 — Bernie Sanders and 6 others didn’t vote.

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AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot (Raphael Lafargue/Abaca/Sipa USA)

A com­bo of As­traZeneca's Imfinzi and chemo wins where oth­ers have failed in piv­otal bil­iary tract test

Looking to run with the big dogs in the PD-(L)1 class, AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi has a tall hill to climb to compete in an increasingly bustling market. An aggressive combo strategy for the drug has paid off so far, and now AstraZeneca is adding another notch to its belt.

A combo of Imfinzi (durvalumab) and chemotherapy significantly extended the lives of first-line patients with advanced biliary tract cancer over chemo alone, according to topline results from the Phase III TOPAZ-1 study revealed Monday.

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Sean Ianchulev, Eyenovia CEO and CMO

Re­cent court de­ci­sion push­es FDA to re­ject and re­clas­si­fy drug-de­vice com­bo, crush­ing shares

Back in April, the FDA lost a crucial court case in which its broad discretion of regulating medical products that might satisfy the legal definitions of either “drug” and/or “medical device” was sharply curtailed.

In addition to the appeals court ruling that Genus Medical Technologies’ contrast agent barium sulfate (aka Vanilla SilQ) should not be considered a drug, as the FDA had initially ruled, but as a medical device, the agency also was forced to spell out which drugs would transition to devices as a result of the ruling.

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Peter Greenleaf, Aurinia CEO

Af­ter pass­ing on Ac­celeron, Bris­tol My­ers eyes bolt-on ac­qui­si­tion of au­toim­mune spe­cial­ist — re­port

Bristol Myers Squibb is looking to beef up its autoimmune portfolio by scooping up Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, Bloomberg reported.

The recent overtures to Aurinia, relayed by anonymous insiders, came just as Bristol Myers turned down buyout talks with partners at Acceleron — which Merck ultimately struck a deal to acquire for $11.5 billion. Bristol Myers has reportedly decided to cash out on its minority stake, likely bagging $1.3 billion in the process, while keeping the royalty deals on two of Acceleron’s blood disorder drugs.

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So — that pig-to-hu­man trans­plant; Po­ten­tial di­a­betes cure reach­es pa­tient; Ac­cused MIT sci­en­tist lash­es back; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

We’re incredibly excited to welcome Beth Bulik, seasoned pharma marketing reporter, to the team. You can find much of her work in our new Marketing channel — and in her weekly newsletter, Endpoints PharmaRx, which will launch in early November. Add it to your subscriptions here.

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NYU surgeon transplants an engineered pig kidney into the outside of a brain-dead patient (Joe Carrotta/NYU Langone Health)

No, sci­en­tists are not any clos­er to pig-to-hu­man trans­plants than they were last week

Steve Holtzman was awoken by a 1 a.m. call from a doctor at Duke University asking if he could put some pigs on a plane and fly them from Ohio to North Carolina that day. A motorcyclist had gotten into a horrific crash, the doctor explained. He believed the pigs’ livers, sutured onto the patient’s skin like an external filter, might be able to tide the young man over until a donor liver became available.

UP­DAT­ED: Agenus calls out FDA for play­ing fa­vorites with Mer­ck, pulls cer­vi­cal can­cer BLA at agen­cy's re­quest

While criticizing the FDA for what may be some favoritism towards Merck, Agenus on Friday officially pulled its accelerated BLA for its anti-PD-1 inhibitor balstilimab as a potential second-line treatment for cervical cancer because of the recent full approval for Merck’s Keytruda in the same indication.

The company said the BLA, which was due for an FDA decision by Dec. 16, was withdrawn “when the window for accelerated approval of balstilimab closed,” thanks to the conversion of Keytruda’s accelerated approval to a full approval four months prior to its PDUFA date.

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