His way: Greg Ver­dine is build­ing a new kind of drug, with back­ing from a dif­fer­ent kind of in­vestor

Af­ter help­ing spear­head the launch of a long string of biotechs over the years from his pres­ti­gious perch at Har­vard, Greg Ver­dine is now de­vot­ing the bulk of his time to lead­ing the ef­fort on grow­ing two biotechs from scratch. And he’s just chalked up a $66 mil­lion round to move one of them — Fog­Phar­ma — in­to the clin­ic next year with a new tech­nol­o­gy he’s con­vinced can break its way in­to ther­a­peu­tic ter­ri­to­ries that have re­mained off lim­its to de­vel­op­ers up to now.

Fog­Phar­ma has been en­gi­neer­ing a new kind of ther­a­peu­tic class, one that com­bines the cell-pen­e­trat­ing ca­pac­i­ty of small mol­e­cules with the tar­get-en­gag­ing tenac­i­ty of bi­o­log­ics in­to what he calls CPMPs — cell pen­e­trat­ing minipro­teins. 

The big idea here — if you strip it all down to the chas­sis — is that Ver­dine and his crew have de­vel­oped a struc­tur­al “brace” that promis­es to make their polypep­tides ef­fec­tive against tough tar­gets like β-catenin. The brace — Ver­dine’s “se­cret sauce” — locks the struc­ture in place and amps up its abil­i­ty to pen­e­trate a cell, ze­ro in on the spe­cif­ic tar­get and main­tain a high lev­el of the drug in blood for a sus­tained pe­ri­od. And he says that each suc­ces­sive it­er­a­tion of their drugs in pre­clin­i­cal test­ing has proven bet­ter at the big job they’re de­signed for: drug­ging the un­drug­gable.

Leon Chen

This new mon­ey in the B round gives Fog­Phar­ma the op­por­tu­ni­ty to take its β-catenin pro­gram — which in­volves Wnt path­way ac­ti­va­tion — in­to a Phase I/II pro­gram in the sec­ond half of next year while lin­ing up an IND on a Cbl-b in­hibitor pro­gram, with a third undis­closed ef­fort com­ing up the line. The dis­cov­ery plat­form in­cludes “three ad­di­tion­al, dis­tinct and dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed forms of cell-pen­e­trat­ing minipro­teins.” 

“The en­tire fi­nanc­ing is three-and-a-half years worth of mon­ey,” Ver­dine tells me. Add that to the $11 mil­lion in Se­ries A cash raised at three sep­a­rate points be­gin­ning in ear­ly 2016, and Ver­dine has round­ed up a to­tal of $77 mil­lion for Fog­Phar­ma.

But it could have been more if he had need­ed it.

Ge Li

Much of the seed mon­ey for Fog­Phar­ma came from Deer­field and WuXi’s cor­po­rate fund, over­seen by Ge Li, a man with ac­cess to a vast amount of cap­i­tal around the world. That kind of fi­nanc­ing al­lowed Ver­dine to cre­ate Fog­Phar­ma with­out be­ing forced to adopt the short-term tac­tics of tra­di­tion­al VCs in the busi­ness.

“We built the com­pa­ny on a dif­fer­ent mod­el,” says Ver­dine. “I want­ed to do this one from soup to nuts. For that rea­son in the Se­ries A we didn’t turn to ven­ture in­vestors who would come in and have a sig­nif­i­cant role in build­ing the com­pa­ny.”

With­out even a hint of boast­ing, Ver­dine be­lieves that with his re­la­tion­ships among elite biotech in­vestors, at this point in his ca­reer of de­vel­op­ing new drugs, he could raise a bil­lion dol­lars if need­ed. There’s an ap­petite for tru­ly pi­o­neer­ing drug de­vel­op­ment work, says Ver­dine, that looks to vault ahead on crit­i­cal, break­through ther­a­pies.

He has the re­sume to back it up. And he’s built a plat­form com­pa­ny which has the ca­pac­i­ty to find and eval­u­ate new tar­gets and prospec­tive new ther­a­pies in a mat­ter of months.

Jeff Leerink

It’s no ac­ci­dent that Ver­dine’s lead pro­gram forms a junc­tion with check­point ther­a­pies; the β-catenin/Wnt path­way dis­rupts im­mune re­spons­es and an ef­fec­tive push here holds the promise of over­com­ing ini­tial re­sis­tance to im­munother­a­py as well as the de­vel­op­ment of drug re­sis­tance to an ef­fec­tive treat­ment. And it’s the first such ther­a­py to make it to the thresh­old of a clin­i­cal tri­al.

But Ver­dine is a proud pa­pa to mul­ti­ple pro­grams, and he is just as ex­cit­ed, if not more so, by the Cbl-b im­muno-on­col­o­gy drug that’s com­ing up be­hind the lead.

“What we’ve seen is that these mol­e­cules can be tol­er­a­ble at rel­a­tive­ly high dos­es, with a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on tu­mor growth,” he says.

Kr­ish­na Yesh­want

Ver­dine has been a cel­e­brat­ed sci­en­tist in the field of drug dis­cov­ery for more years than many of his stu­dents have lived. Along the way, he’s earned some close ties to a new breed of biotech in­vestors who have now come in to back Fog­Phar­ma and well as his sec­ond ven­ture, LifeM­ine.

The sci­en­tist and se­r­i­al en­tre­pre­neur owes much of his suc­cess in rais­ing cash to close ties with Asian groups that have be­come ac­tive play­ers in biotech.

Rick Klaus­ner

Ver­dine’s ex­pe­ri­ence in Chi­na has led him to Boyu Cap­i­tal — an in­flu­en­tial pri­vate eq­ui­ty group led by co-founder and part­ner Sean Tong — and Blue Pool. The Chi­nese ven­ture group 6 Di­men­sions Cap­i­tal came in with oth­er new in­vestors, in­clud­ing Google’s GV, Hori­zons Ven­tures, Nan Fung Group and Leerink Part­ners. Deer­field Man­age­ment came back with Boyu Cap­i­tal, WuXi AppTec Cor­po­rate Ven­tures and “a promi­nent in­ter­na­tion­al group of non-in­sti­tu­tion­al in­vestors” to com­plete the syn­di­cate.

That kind of back­ing al­lowed Ver­dine to build his board with in­di­vid­u­als who are all in on his R&D strat­e­gy, with Leon Chen from 6 Di­men­sions, Leerink’s Jeff Leerink, GV gen­er­al part­ner Kr­ish­na Yesh­want and Rick Klaus­ner, a founder at Juno Ther­a­peu­tics, join­ing the group.

The new mon­ey will al­low Fog­Phar­ma to grow from 26 staffers to­day to north of 40 by the end of the year. And it’s still ear­ly days.

Eli Lil­ly’s first PhI­II show­down for their $1.6B can­cer drug just flopped — what now?

When Eli Lilly plunked down $1.6 billion in cash to acquire Armo Biosciences a little more than a year ago, the stars seemed aligned in its favor. The jewel in the crown they were buying was pegilodecakin, which had cleared the proof-of-concept stage and was already in a Phase III trial for pancreatic cancer.

And that study just failed.

Lilly reported this morning that their cancer drug flopped on overall survival when added to FOLFOX (folinic acid, 5-FU, oxaliplatin), compared to FOLFOX alone among patients suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer.

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Mi­rati preps its first look at their KRAS G12C con­tender, and they have to clear a high bar for suc­cess

If you’re a big KRAS G12C fan, mark your calendars for October 28 at 4:20 pm EDT.

That’s when Mirati $MRTX will unveil its first peek at the early clinical data available on MRTX849 in presentations at the AACR-NCI-EORTC International Conference on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics in Boston.

Mirati has been experiencing the full effect of a rival’s initial success at targeting the G12C pocket found on KRAS, offering the biotech some support on the concept they’re after — and biotech fans a race to the top. Amgen made a big splash with its first positive snapshot on lung cancer, but deflated sky-high expectations as it proved harder to find similar benefits in other types of cancers.

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The FDA will hus­tle up an ex­pe­dit­ed re­view for As­traZeneca’s next shot at a block­buster can­cer drug fran­chise

AstraZeneca paid a hefty price to partner with Daiichi Sankyo on their experimental antibody drug conjugate for HER2 positive breast cancer. And they’ve been rewarded with a fast ride through the FDA, with a straight shot at creating another blockbuster oncology franchise.

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Sean Parker, AP

Sean Park­er helps cre­ate a CRISPRed cell ther­a­py 2.0 play — and he’s got a high-pro­file set of lead­ers on the team

You can rack up one more high-profile debut effort in the wave of activity forming around cell therapy 2.0. It’s another appealing Bay Area group that’s attracted some of the top hands in the business to a multi-year effort to create a breakthrough. And they have $85 million in hand to make that first big step to the clinic.

Today it’s Ken Drazan and the team at South San Francisco-based ArsenalBio that are coming from behind the curtain for a public bow, backed by billionaire Sean Parker and a collection of investors that includes Beth Seidenberg’s new venture investment operation based in LA.
Drazan — a J&J Innovation vet with a long record of entrepreneurial endeavors — exited the stage in 2018 when his last mission ended as he stepped aside as president of Grail. It wasn’t long, though, before he was helping out with a business plan for ArsenalBio that revolved around the work of a large group of interconnected scientists supported by the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunology.
The biotech started by putting together an “arsenal” of technologies aimed at making cell therapies for cancer much, much better than the rather crude first-generation drugs that hit the market from Novartis and Kite.
Their drugs have become the baseline against which all others are being measured.
“The technology set we’re developing is independent of the chassis,” Drazan tells me. “It doesn’t have to be autologous (extracted from the patient) or allogeneic (off the shelf). It doesn’t have to be a T cell, it could be a B cell.” But they are starting out on the autologous side, where they have the most knowledge and insight into manufacturing techniques.
It also doesn’t have to be close to the clinic.
Drazan expects the biotech will be working its way through preclinical operations for “a few years,” with enough money from the $85 million launch round to get into humans.
By today’s superheated fundraising standards, that’s not a huge amount of cash. Lyell, another cell therapy 2.0 startup we featured last week, raised $600 million in a year, including a big chunk of cash from GlaxoSmithKline. Drazan is interested in dealmaking as well, but he also knows he has the cash necessary to support the company for a good run — a key part of what it takes to bring together a stellar team of top players.

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Hal Barron, GSK's president of R&D and CSO, speaks to Endpoints News founder and editor John Carroll in London at Endpoints' #UKBIO19 summit on October 8, 2019

[Video] Cel­e­brat­ing tri­al fail­ures, chang­ing the cul­ture and al­ly­ing with Cal­i­for­nia dream­ers: R&D chief Hal Bar­ron talks about a new era at GSK

Last week I had a chance to sit down with Hal Barron at Endpoints’ #UKBIO19 summit to discuss his views on R&D at GSK, a topic that has been central to his life since he took the top research post close to 2 years ago. During the conversation, Barron talked about changing the culture at GSK, a move that involves several new approaches — one of which involves celebrating their setbacks as they shift resources to the most promising programs in the pipeline. Barron also discussed his new alliances in the Bay Area — including his collaboration pact with Lyell, which we covered here — frankly assesses the pluses and minuses of the UK drug development scene, and talks about his plans for making GSK a much more effective drug developer.

This is one discussion you won’t want to miss. Insider and Enterprise subscribers can log-in to watch the video.

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Med­ical an­i­ma­tion: Mak­ing it eas­i­er for the site and the pa­tient to un­der­stand

Medical animation has in recent years become an increasingly important tool for conveying niche information to a varied audience, particularly to those audiences without expertise in the specialist area. Science programmes today, for example, have moved from the piece-to-camera of the university professor explaining how a complex disease mechanism works, to actually showing the viewer first-hand what it might look like to shrink ourselves down to the size of an ant’s foot, and travel inside the human body to witness these processes in action. Effectively communicating a complex disease pathophysiology, or the novel mechanism of action of a new drug, can be complex. This is especially difficult when the audience domain knowledge is limited or non-existent. Medical animation can help with this communication challenge in several ways.
Improved accessibility to visualisation
Visualisation is a core component of our ability to understand a concept. Ask 10 people to visualise an apple, and each will come up with a slightly different image, some apples smaller than others, some more round, some with bites taken. Acceptable, you say, we can move on to the next part of the story. Now ask 10 people to visualise how HIV’s capsid protein gets arranged into the hexamers and pentamers that form the viral capsid that holds HIV’s genetic material. This request may pose a challenge even to someone with some virology knowledge, and it is that inability to effectively visualise what is going on that holds us back from fully understanding the rest of the story. So how does medical animation help us to overcome this visualisation challenge?

UCB tries to win some re­spect in the crowd­ed pso­ri­a­sis mar­ket with a dual IL-17 ap­proach — and it won't be easy

For a pharma company with about $5 billion in revenue, a couple of respectably sized blockbuster drugs on the market and some high-profile partners like Amgen, Belgium’s UCB has kept an unusually low profile on the pipeline side of things over the years.
Until now.
Just days after striking a $2.1 billion deal to buy Ra Pharmaceuticals and its C5 rival to Soliris, UCB is posting positive top-line Phase III results for a dual IL-17 inhibitor that it’s steering into one of the most competitive commercial spaces in the industry. And despite plenty of obvious challenges as they struggle to roll out Evenity with Amgen and patent expirations loom on its franchise drugs, including Cimzia, the company just may be ready to tackle some of the biggest players on the planet.
In their first of 3 Phase III studies for bimekizumab, researchers touted top-line wins on statistically significant results on clearing plaque psoriasis, including a victory over J&J’s IL-23 contender Stelara on key endpoints. The drug targets both IL-17A and IL-17F, a modification on the IL-17A strategy laid out for Taltz (Eli Lilly) and Cosentyx (Novartis). And the new group also includes J&J’s Tremfya and AbbVie’s Skyrizi.
We don’t know the PASI90 and IGA scores — but UCB knows that with the kind of heavyweight competition it faces with Novartis and others, marginal gains for patients won’t stack up. So we’ll be watching for the hard numbers. And there’s another head-to-head with Cosentyx that will play a big role in pushing up analysts’ projections on peak sales, which currently fall well short of blockbuster status.
UCB hasn’t exactly been in the spotlight for the last few years, but it’s in a position now that the company has to win some respect in R&D, with blockbuster projects that can keep investors’ attention at a time the industry is experiencing booming R&D development efforts around the planet.
It hasn’t been easy. There was a setback on a lupus drug partnered with Biogen. But there have been some advances, with a deal to buy Proximagen’s NDA-ready nasal spray therapy USL261, designed as a rescue therapy for acute repetitive seizures, for $150 million in cash and another $220 million in sales and regulatory milestones. There was even a report that the company was kicking the deflated tires at Acorda, though nothing came of that.
Late last year UCB also committed to spend up to £200 million on a new R&D hub in the UK.
That may not translate into a lot of excitement right now, but they’re trying. And there’s a subtle promise that more deals may be in the works.

Swamy Vijayan. Plexium

San Diego up­start de­buts dis­cov­ery en­gine that puts a twist to pro­tein degra­da­tion

For years, the idea of protein degradation — utilizing the cell’s natural garbage disposal system to mark problematic proteins for destruction — remained an elegant but technically difficult concept. But now established as a promising clinical strategy, with major biopharma players such as Bayer, Gilead and Vertex trying to grab a foothold via partnership deals, a San Diego startup is looking to exploit it and push its limits.

CSL ac­cus­es ri­val Pharm­ing of par­tic­i­pat­ing in a scheme to rip off IP on HAE while re­cruit­ing se­nior R&D staffer

Pharming has landed in the middle of a legal donnybrook after recruiting a senior executive from a rival R&D team at CSL. The Australian pharma giant slapped Pharming with a lawsuit alleging that the Dutch biotech’s new employee, Joseph Chiao, looted a large cache of proprietary documents as he hit the exit. And they want it all back.
Federal Judge Juan Sanchez in the Eastern District Pennsylvania court issued an injunction on Tuesday prohibiting Chiao from doing any work on HAE or primary immune deficiency in his new job and demanding that he return any material from CSL that he may have in his possession. And he wants Pharming to tell its employees not to ask for any information on the forbidden topics.
For its part, Pharming fired off an indignant response this morning denying any involvement in extracting any kind of IP from CSL, adding that it’s cooperating in the internal probe that CSL has underway.

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