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.

Roger Perlmutter, Merck R&D chief (YouTube)

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck makes a triple play on Covid-19: buy­ing out a vac­cine biotech, part­ner­ing on an­oth­er pro­gram and adding an an­tivi­ral to the mix

Merck is making a triple play in a sudden leap into the R&D campaign against Covid-19.

Tuesday morning the pharma giant simultaneously announced plans to buy an Austrian biotech that has been working on a preclinical vaccine candidate, added a collaboration on another vaccine with the nonprofit IAVI and inked a deal with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics on an early-stage antiviral.

The deal with IAVI covers recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus (rVSV) technology that is the basis for Merck’s successful Ebola Zaire virus vaccine. That’s going into the clinic later this year.

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The Advance Clinical leadership team: CEO Yvonne Lungershausen, Sandrien Louwaars - Director Business Development Operations, Gabriel Kremmidiotis - Chief Scientific Officer, Ben Edwards - Chief Strategy Officer

How Aus­tralia De­liv­ers Rapid Start-up and 43.5% Re­bate for Ear­ly Phase On­col­o­gy Tri­als

About Avance Clinical

Avance Clinical is an Australian owned Contract Research Organisation that has been providing high-quality clinical research services to the local and international drug development industry for 20 years. They specialise in working with biotech companies to execute Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials to deliver high-quality outcomes fit for global regulatory standards.

As oncology sponsors look internationally to speed-up trials after unprecedented COVID-19 suspensions and delays, Australia, which has led the world in minimizing the pandemic’s impact, stands out as an attractive destination for early phase trials. This in combination with the streamlined regulatory system and the financial benefits including a very favourable exchange rate and the R & D cash rebate makes Australia the perfect location for accelerating biotech clinical programs.

Andrew Hopkins, Exscientia founder and CEO (Exscientia)

Af­ter years of part­ner­ships, AI biotech Ex­sci­en­tia lands first ma­jor fi­nanc­ing round at $60M

After years racking up partnerships with biotechs and Big Pharma, the AI drug developer Exscientia has landed its first large financing round.

The UK-based company raised $60 million in a Series C round led by Novo Holdings — more than double the $26 million it garnered in a Series B 18 months ago. The round will help further the company’s expansion into the US and further what it calls, borrowing a term from the software world, its “full-stack capabilities,” i.e. its ability to develop drugs from the earliest stage to the market.

Covid-19 roundup: Janet Wood­cock steps aside — for now — as FDA drug czar; WHO hits the brakes on hy­droxy study af­ter lat­est safe­ty alarm

The biopharma industry will soon get a look at what the FDA will look like once CDER’s powerful chief Janet Woodcock retires from her post.

Long considered one of the most influential regulators in the agency, if not its single most powerful official when it counts, Woodcock is being detached to devote herself full-time to the White House’s special project to fast-forward new drugs and vaccines for the pandemic. The move comes a week after some quick reshuffling as Woodcock and CBER chief Peter Marks joined Operation Warp Speed. Initially they opted to recuse themselves from any FDA decisions on pandemic treatments and vaccines, after consumer advocates criticized the move as a clear conflict of interest in how the agency exercises oversight on new approvals.

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Piv­otal myas­the­nia gravis da­ta from ar­genx au­gur well for FcRn in­hibitors in de­vel­op­ment

Leading the pack of biotechs vying for a piece of the generalized myasthenia gravis (gMG) market with an FcRn inhibitor, argenx on Tuesday unveiled keenly anticipated positive late-stage data on its lead asset, bringing it one step closer to regulatory approval.

Despite steroids, immunosuppressants, acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, and Alexion’s Soliris, patients with the rare, chronic neuromuscular disorder (more than 100,000 in the United States and Europe) don’t necessarily benefit from these existing options, leaving room for the crop of FcRn inhibitors in development.

Af­ter de­cou­pling from Re­gen­eron, Sanofi says it’s time to sell the $13B stake picked up in the mar­riage

With Regeneron shares going for a peak price — after doubling from last fall — Sanofi is putting a $13 billion stake in their longtime partner on the auction block. And Regeneron is taking $5 billion of that action for themselves.

Sanofi — which has been decoupling from Regeneron for more than a year now — bought in big in early 2013, back when Regeneron’s stock was going for around $165 a share. Small investors flocked to the deal, buzzing about an imminent takeover. The buyout chatter wound down long ago.

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Eric Edwards, Phlow president and CEO (PR Newswire)

BAR­DA of­fers a tiny start­up up to $812M to cre­ate a US-based drug man­u­fac­tur­er — and the CEO comes with a price goug­ing con­tro­ver­sy on his ré­sumé

BARDA has tapped a largely unknown startup to ramp up production of a list of drugs that may be at risk of running short in the US. And the deal, which comes with up to $812 million in federal funds, was inked by a CEO who found himself in the middle of an ugly price gouging controversy a few years ago.

The feds’ new partner — called Phlow — won a 4-year “base” contract of $354 million, with another $458 million that’s on the table in potential options to sustain the outfit. That would make it one of the largest awards in BARDA’s history.

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Janet Woodcock, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (AP Images)

Covid-19 roundup: Hit with new con­flict ac­cu­sa­tions, Janet Wood­cock steps out of the agen­cy's Covid-19 chain of com­mand

Two weeks ago, FDA drug chieftain Janet Woodcock was assuring a top Wall Street analyst that any vaccine approved for combating Covid-19 would have to meet high agency standards on safety and efficacy before it’s approved. But over the weekend, after she and Peter Marks took top positions with the public-private operation meant to speed a new vaccine to lightning-fast approvals — they both recused themselves from the review process after an advocacy group argued their roles close to the White House could pose a conflict of interest.

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Re­searchers de­fine ex­act­ly what they saw in the first pos­i­tive remde­sivir study for Covid-19. But what's that worth to Gilead?

Remdesivir can work in fighting Covid-19, particularly for patients with less severe cases, but this is just a first step in the journey to finding combos that can do the job much better.

That’s the bottom line from Gilead’s randomized study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Analysts were quick to draw conclusions about how the big biotech could turn this into a profitable advantage — with widespread expectation of considerable pricing restraint on Gilead’s part. Anyone looking for a new mountain of cash to count as the world grapples with the pandemic is likely to come away disappointed.