Har­vard prof Omid Farokhzad heads west, set­ting up a new Bay Area biotech on a mis­sion to start a rev­o­lu­tion in pre-symp­to­matic dis­ease de­tec­tion

As a Har­vard pro­fes­sor with close ties to MIT’s Bob Langer, Omid Farokhzad has en­joyed a high-pro­file role in the Boston/Cam­bridge biotech com­mu­ni­ty, where he’s par­tic­i­pat­ed in launch­ing a line­up of star­tups. And now Farokhzad — whose ac­com­plish­ments ex­tend to his role as physi­cian-sci­en­tist at Brigham and Women’s Hos­pi­tal — has put it all in his rear view mir­ror, jour­ney­ing out to the Bay Area to launch a new biotech he vows can go on to play a rev­o­lu­tion­ary role in open­ing the door to the ear­ly de­tec­tion of dis­eases.

And this time, he’s helm­ing the ven­ture as a first-time CEO.

The com­pa­ny is called Seer, which is tak­ing its place in the bustling biotech hub that Genen­tech helped cre­ate in South San Fran­cis­co. The big idea: Shift­ing away from ge­nomics, Seer’s team has been build­ing a pro­teomics plat­form that will do some pop­u­la­tion-wide ex­plo­rations, build­ing a moun­tain of da­ta that can be probed with ma­chine learn­ing tech in search of in­sights in­to dis­eases that can be used to de­vel­op liq­uid biop­sy prod­ucts for ear­ly-stage di­ag­no­sis.  

Bob Langer

The ear­li­er you are in de­tect­ing dis­ease, the bet­ter your chances of cur­ing it — or stop­ping it from be­com­ing a threat. If it works, Seer will build and mar­ket liq­uid biop­sy prod­ucts for pre-symp­to­matic dis­eases, start­ing with can­cer and neu­rol­o­gy.

Why the abrupt change of lo­cale and jobs? We talked about that.

“If I didn’t put my own fin­ger­print on (Seer) in a mean­ing­ful way,” Farokhzad tells me, “I knew I would re­gret it for the rest of my life.”

The Bay Area, he adds, is the on­ly place he can find the right tal­ent mix to do this com­plex tech work on the pro­teome, a dis­ci­pline that would re­quire ex­per­tise in nan­otech­nol­o­gy (his spe­cial­ty), pro­tein chem­istry, ma­chine learn­ing and da­ta an­a­lyt­ics for a mas­sive amount of da­ta — “done rapid­ly at scale.”

Hav­ing formed Seer a year ago, Farokhzad left his Cam­bridge/Boston post last March to join a team that has since grown to 20. Dur­ing that time, he’s pieced to­geth­er $36 mil­lion in ven­ture sup­port for his com­pa­ny. That group of back­ers in­cludes Mav­er­ick Ven­tures and In­vus.

Philip Ma

MIT’s pro­lif­ic Langer, who’s al­lied with his for­mer post­doc stu­dent on star­tups like Blend Ther­a­peu­tics — which lat­er re­tooled its tech and changed its name to Tarve­da — is in for the ride, lead­ing the sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­so­ry group for Seer. And then there’s Philip Ma, the pres­i­dent and chief busi­ness de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer. The ex-McK­in­sey part­ner set up the Dig­i­tal Health Tech­nolo­gies and Da­ta Sci­ences group at Bio­gen. The rest of the team — which will dou­ble in size over the next year — in­cludes a broad range of tal­ents.

Farokhzad be­lieves they should be po­si­tioned to start pro­duc­ing clin­i­cal read­outs from their de­vel­op­ment work in 2019 and 2020, with their first new prod­uct on the 2021 time hori­zon.

“Pre­clin­i­cal is tough to de­ci­pher,” says the sci­en­tist. “You have to get in­to clin­i­cal stud­ies to re­al­ly un­der­stand what’s go­ing on.”

The sci­en­tist has banked plen­ty of ex­pe­ri­ence along the way of an event­ful ca­reer. His list of star­tups in­cludes Se­lec­ta as well as Bind Bio­sciences, which sold off its as­sets un­der bank­rupt­cy.

At this point, the tech­nol­o­gy he’s now fo­cused on has reached the stage where you can do some­thing fast with a small num­ber of pro­teins, or take days and weeks to go broad. Farokhzad be­lieves Seer is po­si­tion­ing it­self to go broad fast, which could have ma­jor im­pli­ca­tions. Be­ing able at some point to re­li­ably iden­ti­fy pre-symp­to­matic Alzheimer’s, to use the most ob­vi­ous and chal­leng­ing ex­am­ple, would open up a new ap­proach to drug de­vel­op­ment af­ter bil­lions of dol­lars have been burned up in fruit­less R&D pro­grams.

Big dream? You could say so. If Il­lu­mi­na is the leader in ge­nomics, Farokhzad be­lieves the new­ly un­veiled Seer can be­come a gi­ant just as big fol­low­ing the pro­teomics path­way.

“There is an ex­treme­ly large vac­u­um to fill in be­com­ing a leader in this field,” he says. “We’re talk­ing about many tens of bil­lions of mar­ket op­por­tu­ni­ty.”


Im­age: Omid Farokhzad. SEER

Mi­no­ryx and Sper­o­genix ink an ex­clu­sive li­cense agree­ment to de­vel­op and com­mer­cial­ize lerigli­ta­zone in Chi­na

September 23, 2020 – Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai (China) and Mataró, Barcelona (Spain)  

Minoryx will receive an upfront and milestone payments of up to $78 million, as well as double digit royalties on annual net sales 

Sperogenix will receive exclusive rights to develop and commercialize leriglitazone for the treatment of X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy (X-ALD), a rare life-threatening neurological condition

Vas Narasimhan (AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Still held down by clin­i­cal hold, No­var­tis' Zol­gens­ma falls fur­ther be­hind Bio­gen and Roche as FDA asks for a new piv­otal study

Last October, the FDA slowed down Novartis’ quest to extend its gene therapy to older spinal muscular atrophy patients by slapping a partial hold on intrathecal administration. Almost a year later, the hold is still there, and regulators are adding another hurdle required for regulatory submission: a new pivotal confirmatory study.

The new requirement — which departs significantly from Novartis’ prior expectations — will likely stretch the path to registration beyond 2021, when analysts were expecting a BLA submission. That could mean more time for Biogen to reap Spinraza revenues and Roche to ramp up sales of Evrysdi in the absence of a rival.

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FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn at the White House (AP Images)

Un­der fire, FDA to is­sue stricter guid­ance for Covid-19 vac­cine EUA this week — re­port

The FDA has been insisting for months that a Covid-19 vaccine had to be at least 50% effective – a measure of transparency meant to shore public trust in the agency and in a vaccine that had been brought forward at record speed and record political pressure. But now, with concerns of a Trump-driven authorization arriving before the election, the agency may be raising the bar.

The FDA is set to release new guidance that would raise safety and efficacy requirements for a vaccine EUA above earlier guidance and above the criteria used for convalescent plasma or hydroxychloroquine, The Washington Post reported. Experts say this significantly lowers the odds of an approval before the election on November 3, which Trump has promised despite vocal concerns from public health officials, and could help shore up public trust in the agency and any eventual vaccine.

Patrick Enright, Longitude co-founder (Longitude)

As its biotechs hit the pan­dem­ic ex­it, Lon­gi­tude rais­es $585M for new neu­ro, can­cer, ag­ing and or­phan-fo­cused fund

The years have been kind to Longitude Capital. This year, too.

A 2006 spinout of Pequot Capital, its founders started their new firm just four years before the parent company would go under amid insider trading allegations. Their first life sciences fund raised $325 million amid the financial crisis, they added a second for $385 million and then in, 2016, a third for $525 million. In the last few months, the pandemic biotech IPO boom netted several high-value exits from those funds, as Checkmate, Vaxcyte, Inozyme and Poseida all went public.

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Isaac Veinbergs, Libra CEO

With $29M in Se­ries A, Boehringer-backed Li­bra looks to tack­le neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion through cel­lu­lar clean­ing

Can the natural process by which cells clean out toxic proteins be harnessed to create potential treatments for neurodegenerative disorders?

That’s the question Libra Therapeutics will be trying to answer, as the new biotech officially launched Wednesday morning with $29 million in Series A financing. The company has three preclinical programs at the ready, with its lead candidate targeting ALS and frontotemporal dementia. But CEO Isaac Veinbergs said he hopes to develop therapies for a wide range of diseases, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s.

Gene Wang, Immetas co-founder and CEO (file photo)

Im­metas Ther­a­peu­tics nabs $11M Se­ries A to nar­row their bis­pe­cif­ic work tar­get­ing in­flam­ma­tion in age-re­lat­ed dis­eases

How does a biotech celebrate its two-year anniversary? For Immetas Therapeutics, it’s with an $11 million Series A round and a game plan to fight age-related disease.

Co-founders Gene Wang and David Sinclair came together years ago around the idea that inflammation is the ultimate process driving age-related illnesses, including cancer. The duo launched Immetas in 2018 and packed the staff with industry experts. Wang, who says he’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit, has held lead roles at Novartis, GSK, Bristol Myers Squibb and Merck. He’s worked on blockbuster drugs like Humira, Gardasil, Varubi and Zolinza. And now, he’s channeling that spirit as CEO.

PhII Alzheimer's fail­ure deals new blow to Roche, AC Im­mune — but the tau hy­poth­e­sis is far from dead

The leading anti-tau antibody has failed its first Phase II testing, casting a shadow on a popular target (just trailing amyloid beta) for Alzheimer’s disease.

Roche and AC Immune are quick to acknowledge disappointment in the topline readout, which suggested that semorinemab did not reduce cognitive decline among patients with early Alzheimer’s disease, who are either just starting to have symptoms or have mild manifestations.

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Covid-19 roundup: J&J be­gins piv­otal Phase III tri­al for vac­cine; Con­tro­ver­sial hu­man chal­lenge tri­als to be­gin in Lon­don — re­port

Johnson & Johnson announced it’s beginning a pivotal Phase III trial for its Covid-19 candidate, JNJ-78436735 — the first single-dose vaccine in this stage.

The Phase III trial, dubbed ENSEMBLE, will enroll 60,000 patients worldwide, making it the largest Phase III study of a Covid-19 vaccine to date. J&J said the candidate achieved positive interim results in a Phase I/IIa study, which will be published “imminently.” There’s a possibility that the first batches will be ready for potential emergency use in early 2021, according to the biotech.

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Scoop: ARCH’s Bob Nelsen is back­ing an mR­NA up­start that promis­es to up­end the en­tire man­u­fac­tur­ing side of the glob­al busi­ness

For the past 2 years, serial entrepreneur Igor Khandros relied on a small network of friends and close insiders to supply the first millions he needed to fund a secretive project to master a new approach to manufacturing mRNA therapies.

Right now, he says, he has a working “GMP-in-a-box” prototype for a new company he’s building — after launching 3 public companies — which plans to spread this contained, precise manufacturing tech around the world with a set of partners. He’s raised $60 million, recruited some prominent experts. And not coincidentally, he’s going semi-public with this just as a small group of pioneers appears to be on the threshold of ushering in the world’s first mRNA vaccines to fight a worldwide pandemic.

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