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.

J&J gets a fresh OK for es­ke­t­a­mine, but is it re­al­ly the game-chang­er for de­pres­sion Trump keeps tweet­ing about?

Backed by an enthusiastic set of tweets from President Trump and a landmark OK for depression, J&J scooped up a new approval from the FDA for Spravato today. But this latest advance will likely bring fresh scrutiny to a drug that’s spurred some serious questions about the data, as well as the price.

First, the approval.

Regulators stamped their OK on the use of Spravato — developed as esketamine, a nasal spray version of the party drug Special K or ketamine — for patients suffering from major depressive disorder with acute suicidal ideation or behavior.

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FDA hands Mor­phoSys and In­cyte a quick OK on their po­ten­tial block­buster CAR-T al­ter­na­tive

Nearly three years after okaying the CAR-Ts Yescarta and Kymriah, the FDA has approved a new CD19 therapy.

MorphoSys’ Monjuvi, or tafasitamab-cxix, was cleared Friday for use in refractory diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DBLCL). The approval sets up both MorphoSys and their commercial partner Incyte to compete with Gilead and Novartis in the ultra-competitive indication, where similar trial results and far easier delivery could allow them to cut a fair share of the market.

Rich Heyman (ARCH)

Rich Hey­man joins PMV Phar­ma, a p53 biotech, as it adds $70 mil­lion in Se­ries D

Less than a year after pulling in an impressive $62 million Series C round, PMV Pharma is back at it again.

The Cranbury, NJ-based biotech announced Monday an additional $70 million in Series D financing as it seeks to develop cancer therapies targeting p53 mutations. Additionally, PMV also introduced longtime biotech entrepreneur Rich Heyman as chairman of the board of directors.

“This financing provides PMV Pharma with the resources to expand our pipeline and to potentially advance multiple p53 therapies into the clinic,” said PMV president and CEO David Mack in a statement.

Sanofi un­der for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tion for De­pakine al­le­ga­tions; Beam li­cens­es CAR-T tech from Ox­ford Bio­med­ica

Sanofi is facing a formal investigation on manslaughter charges, due to accusations that its epilepsy drug Depakine caused birth malfunctions and slow neurological development when taken during pregnancy.

The French pharma was formally charged in February, years after evidence surfaced that the drug, sodium valproate, posed neurodevelopmental risks. Sodium valproate first hit the market in 1967 for the treatment of epilepsy and bipolar disorder, and is currently prescribed in more than 100 countries.

Covid-19 roundup: Eli Lil­ly retro­fits RVs for first-of-its-kind an­ti­body tri­al with NIH; Am­gen, Ab­b­Vie, Take­da team on a drug

Eli Lilly and the NIH are about to start a first-of-its-kind trial that researchers and developers have talked about for months as a way of providing temporary immunity to the most at-risk populations.

Lilly announced this morning that it will start a 2,400-person trial with the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases to test whether its experimental Covid-19 neutralizing antibody can prevent people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities from developing the disease. The idea, known as passive immunity, is that rather than waiting on a vaccine to induce people to develop antibodies, doctors can give them lab-grown antibodies. Ideally, those antibodies will either attack the new SARS-CoV-2 infection, if the patient has recently been exposed, or persist in the blood for several weeks and prevent infection or disease for that period.

Frank Zhang (AP Images)

CAR-T fil­ing in sight, Frank Zhang grabs full con­trol of J&J-part­nered Leg­end Biotech, steps down from Gen­Script

Two months after Yuan Xu steered Legend Biotech to a $424 million public debut on the Nasdaq, founder and chairman Frank Zhang is grabbing the reins as CEO.

In conjunction with the move, Zhang is also stepping down from the helm of GenScript — a position he’s held for 18 years. GenScript, a Hong Kong-listed CRO, hatched Legend as a subsidiary in 2015 before spinning it out, and remains a majority shareholder.

So Covid-19 leader BioN­Tech has a can­cer vac­cine in de­vel­op­ment? Yes, and Re­gen­eron just jumped in for the PhII com­bo study

Before the coronavirus global emergency stole the R&D show in biopharma, the leaders in the race to develop new mRNA therapies had a big interest in determining if their tech could be used to create an effective cancer vaccine after all the first-gen tries had failed to impress. So perhaps it’s not surprising that an early cut of the data at frontrunner BioNTech went largely unnoticed.

Unless you were at Regeneron.

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Days af­ter seal­ing Sanofi pact, Kymera beats a path to the Nas­daq with $100M IPO pitch

Back in March, when Kymera Therapeutics closed $102 million in Series C funding led by Biotechnology Value Fund and Redmile Group, CEO Nello Mainolfi noted the protein degradation player was “at the cusp of transitioning” into a fully integrated R&D company. Five months and a major Sanofi pact later, he’s back asking for another little push to get there.

Kymera has penciled in $100 million in its first IPO pitch — although given the public market’s seemingly insatiable appetite for biotechs these days the final figure is anyone’s guess.

CymaBay flash­es pos­i­tive re­sults from the tri­al they have to re­launch

Two weeks after the FDA lifted its clinical hold on their lead drug, CymaBay said it showed positive results in an aborted Phase III trial.

The drug, a small molecule known as seladelpar, had been in development for three different liver conditions before an independent review of a NASH study last year showed that it might actually be damaging patient’s liver cells. The FDA slapped a clinical hold across all three trials, only lifting it last month when an FDA review determined that the drug hadn’t caused liver damage.