High-pro­file biotech leader Deb­o­rah Dun­sire takes the helm at XTu­it, fo­cused on can­cer and fi­bro­sis

Deb­o­rah Dun­sire is back in biotech.

About nine months af­ter Dun­sire left a fast-sink­ing Fo­rum Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, she’s tak­en the helm of a biotech start­up with big plans to break new ground in can­cer and fi­bro­sis R&D. Dun­sire, the for­mer chief of the icon­ic Mil­len­ni­um and one of the high­est pro­file biotech ex­ecs in the Boston biotech hub, has been named CEO of XTu­it.

She’s tak­ing over from in­ter­im CEO Alan Crane, a Po­laris part­ner who helped ger­mi­nate years of sci­en­tif­ic think­ing on the part of some lo­cal leg­ends to help ramp up the start­up, which jumped out of stealth mode last June with a $22 mil­lion ven­ture round. Dun­sire knows just about every­one in the Boston biotech com­mu­ni­ty from her days at Mil­len­ni­um, and they didn’t need an in­tro­duc­tion when it came time for Crane to find a full-time chief for XTu­it.

“I got a call from Alan in Oc­to­ber.” Dun­sire re­calls, “and he said, Dave (Mott, at NEA) and I were talk­ing about this com­pa­ny.”

What fol­lowed was a 7-hour brain­storm­ing ses­sion with Mass Gen­er­al’s Rakesh Jain, one of the three key sci­en­tists — with MIT’s pro­lif­ic Robert Langer and Salk Pro­fes­sor Ronald Evans — who make up the brain trust at Xtu­it.

“It was en­er­giz­ing and fun,” Dun­sire re­calls, “and it was in­ter­est­ing to learn about the sci­ence.”

The sci­ence at XTu­it in­volves a con­nec­tive tis­sue in the body known as stro­ma. Found in can­cer tu­mors, it’s been linked with poor out­comes for pa­tients. Stro­ma makes it dif­fi­cult for drugs to hit their tar­get, the com­pa­ny be­lieves. The mi­croen­vi­ron­ment al­so “re­pels” the im­mune sys­tem, blunt­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of im­munother­a­pies, lend­ing their work on new ther­a­pies as an ob­vi­ous com­pan­ion drug to the check­points now gain­ing trac­tion. And the ab­nor­mal tis­sue is fi­bro­sis. So the com­pa­ny is tak­ing twin tracks, look­ing for drugs that can tar­get stro­ma in tu­mors as a like­ly com­bo ther­a­py and then sep­a­rate­ly as a treat­ment specif­i­cal­ly for fi­bro­sis.

Like every­one else who has tried their hand at Alzheimer’s, Dun­sire wasn’t able to make a go of it at Fo­rum, which qui­et­ly shut its doors last year af­ter get­ting hit with a clin­i­cal hold on the mem­o­ry-wast­ing dis­ease while fail­ing to make a dent in schiz­o­phre­nia. In biotech, though, fail­ure is a risk every­one faces. And Dun­sire nev­er burned her bridges in the biotech com­mu­ni­ty.

XTu­it, Dun­sire says, of­fers a chance to get back in­to a field where pre­ci­sion med­i­cine is the goal, il­lu­mi­nat­ed with a clear un­der­stand­ing of the sci­ence, dis­ease path­ways and bio­mark­ers nec­es­sary to ze­ro in on spe­cif­ic pa­tient pop­u­la­tions that stand the best shot at be­ing helped by a new drug. In oth­er words, it’s every­thing Alzheimer’s R&D is not.

“Fi­bro­sis is prob­a­bly not one dis­ease,” says Dun­sire, but sub­sets where you can iden­ti­fy groups which can ben­e­fit from a new drug.

The goal now is to get the first drug in the clin­ic in the first half of 2018, says the new CEO, af­ter sort­ing through the tu­mor types which lend them­selves to the first stud­ies. Then she can get a bet­ter idea about time­lines for new fundrais­ing, grow­ing the cur­rent team of 30 and build­ing the pipeline.

Norbert Bischofberger. Kronos

Backed by some of the biggest names in biotech, Nor­bert Bischof­berg­er gets his megaround for plat­form tech out of MIT

A little over a year ago when I reported on Norbert Bischofberger’s jump from the CSO job at giant Gilead to a tiny upstart called Kronos, I noted that with his connections in biotech finance, that $18 million launch round he was starting off with could just as easily have been $100 million or more.

With his first anniversary now behind him, Bischofberger has that mega-round in the bank.

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Francesco De Rubertis

Medicxi is rolling out its biggest fund ever to back Eu­rope's top 'sci­en­tists with strange ideas'

Francesco De Rubertis built Medicxi to be the kind of biotech venture player he would have liked to have known back when he was a full time scientist.

“When I was a scientist 20 years ago I would have loved Medicxi,’ the co-founder tells me. It’s the kind of place run by and for investigators, what the Medicxi partner calls “scientists with strange ideas — a platform for the drug hunter and scientific entrepreneur. That’s what I wanted when I was a scientist.”

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Af­ter a decade, Vi­iV CSO John Pot­tage says it's time to step down — and he's hand­ing the job to long­time col­league Kim Smith

ViiV Healthcare has always been something unique in the global drug industry.

Owned by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer — with GSK in the lead as majority owner — it was created 10 years ago in a time of deep turmoil for the field as something independent of the pharma giants, but with access to lots of infrastructural support on demand. While R&D at the mother ship inside GSK was souring, a razor-focused ViiV provided a rare bright spot, challenging Gilead on a lucrative front in delivering new combinations that require fewer therapies with a more easily tolerated regimen.

They kept a massive number of people alive who would otherwise have been facing a death sentence. And they made money.

And throughout, John Pottage has been the chief scientific and chief medical officer.

Until now.

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Chas­ing Roche's ag­ing block­buster fran­chise, Am­gen/Al­ler­gan roll out Avastin, Her­ceptin knock­offs at dis­count

Let the long battle for biosimilars in the cancer space begin.

Amgen has launched its Avastin and Herceptin copycats — licensed from the predecessors of Allergan — almost two years after the FDA had stamped its approval on Mvasi (bevacizumab-awwb) and three months after the Kanjinti OK (trastuzumab-anns). While the biotech had been fielding biosimilars in Europe, this marks their first foray in the US — and the first oncology biosimilars in the country.

Seer adds ex-FDA chief Mark Mc­Clel­lan to the board; Her­cules Cap­i­tal makes it of­fi­cial for new CEO Scott Bluestein

→ On the same day it announced a $17.5 million Series C, life sciences and health data company Seer unveiled that it had lured former FDA commissioner and ex-CMS administrator Mark McClellan on to its board. “Mark’s deep understanding of the health care ecosystem and visionary insights on policy reform will be crucial in informing our thinking as we work to bring our liquid biopsy and life sciences products to market,” said Seer chief and founder Omid Farokhzad in a statement.

Daniel O'Day

No­var­tis hands off 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams to the an­tivi­ral R&D mas­ters at Gilead

Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day’s new task hunting up a CSO for the company isn’t stopping the industry’s dominant antiviral player from doing pipeline deals.

The big biotech today snapped up 3 preclinical antiviral programs from pharma giant Novartis, with drugs promising to treat human rhinovirus, influenza and herpes viruses. We don’t know what the upfront is, but the back end has $291 million in milestones baked in.

Vas Narasimhan, AP Images

On a hot streak, No­var­tis ex­ecs run the odds on their two most im­por­tant PhI­II read­outs. Which is 0.01% more like­ly to suc­ceed?

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan is living in the sweet spot right now.

The numbers are running a bit better than expected, the pipeline — which he assembled as development chief — is performing and the stock popped more than 4% on Thursday as the executive team ran through their assessment of Q2 performance.

Year-to-date the stock is up 28%, so the investors will be beaming. Anyone looking for chinks in their armor — and there are plenty giving it a shot — right now focus on payer acceptance of their $2.1 million gene therapy Zolgensma, where it’s early days. And CAR-T continues to underperform, but Novartis doesn’t appear to be suffering from it.

So what could go wrong?

Actually, not much. But Tim Anderson at Wolfe pressed Narasimhan and his development chief John Tsai to pick which of two looming Phase III readouts with blockbuster implication had the better odds of success.

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On a glob­al romp, Boehringer BD team picks up its third R&D al­liance for Ju­ly — this time fo­cused on IPF with $50M up­front

Boehringer Ingelheim’s BD team is on a global deal spree. The German pharma company just wrapped its third deal in 3 weeks, going back to Korea for its latest pipeline pact — this time focused on idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

They’re handing over $50 million to get their hands on BBT-877, an ATX inhibitor from Korea’s Bridge Biotherapeutics that was on display at a science conference in Dallas recently. There’s not a whole lot of data to evaluate the prospects here.

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Servi­er scoots out of an­oth­er col­lab­o­ra­tion with Macro­Gen­ics, writ­ing off their $40M

Servier is walking out on a partnership with MacroGenics $MGNX — for the second time.

After the market closed on Wednesday MacroGenics put out word that Servier is severing a deal — inked close to 7 years ago — to collaborate on the development of flotetuzumab and other Dual-Affinity Re-Targeting (DART) drugs in its pipeline.

MacroGenics CEO Scott Koenig shrugged off the departure of Servier, which paid $20 million to kick off the alliance and $20 million to option flotetuzumab — putting a heavily back-ended $1 billion-plus in additional biobuck money on the table for the anti-CD123/CD3 bispecific and its companion therapies.