IL-2 with­out the tox­ic side ef­fects? Or­bimed backs the idea in Syn­thorx' $63M round

A start­up in San Diego that’s bold­ly re-writ­ing the code for life by ex­pand­ing the ge­net­ic “al­pha­bet” just got a big in­fu­sion of cash from Or­bimed. The com­pa­ny, called Syn­thorx, raised $63 mil­lion on the promise of po­ten­tial ther­a­pies built on break­throughs in syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy.

Floyd Romes­berg

Syn­thorx is build­ing its tech on work pi­o­neered by Floyd Romes­berg, a pro­fes­sor at The Scripps Re­search In­sti­tute in San Diego, who found a way to ex­tend the ge­net­ic al­pha­bet. In ad­di­tion to the nat­ur­al DNA base pairs A-T and G-C, Romes­berg de­vel­oped a third, syn­thet­ic base pair coined X-Y. The ex­tra pair cre­ates a huge op­por­tu­ni­ty to tweak pro­teins, as they can be built with up to 172 amino acids in­stead of the measly 20 avail­able with nat­ur­al base pairs.

When I first en­coun­tered Syn­thorx back in 2014, its then-CEO Court Turn­er put it this way:

“If you have a ques­tion and you can on­ly an­swer it with 20 words, how good would your an­swer be?” Now imag­ine hav­ing 172 words.

Even though Syn­thorx is a tiny com­pa­ny still ear­ly in its field, this is not the first time its caught our at­ten­tion. The com­pa­ny, in­cu­bat­ed in its ear­ly days at Aval­on Ven­tures’ start­up cam­pus COI Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, at­tract­ed A-list tal­ent late last year when Lau­ra Shawver came on board as CEO. Shawver is best known for lead­ing Cleave Bio­sciences through two siz­able rounds of fund­ing. She left Cleave when it was well-cap­i­tal­ized and in the midst of ad­vanc­ing an ex­cit­ing pipeline to in­stead lead Syn­thorx.

Lau­ra Shawver

“It’s not very of­ten that one gets to par­tic­i­pate in some­thing that is po­ten­tial­ly game-chang­ing for ther­a­peu­tics and like­ly will — this plat­form tech­nol­o­gy will be uti­lized for years to come,” she told End­points News at the time.

With the com­pa­ny’s ge­net­ic lex­i­con, Syn­thorx is cre­at­ing a pipeline of par­tial­ly syn­thet­ic bi­o­log­ics, in­clud­ing its lead pro­gram in in­ter­leukin-2 (IL-2) for can­cer (which the com­pa­ny is call­ing Syn­thorin IL-2). Shawver tells me the ap­proved IL-2 drug is known to work in­cred­i­bly well at boost­ing an­ti-tu­mor ac­tiv­i­ty, but it comes with side ef­fects so se­vere that the treat­ments are hard­ly used any­more.

“Tra­di­tion­al­ly, you have to give IL-2 at very high dos­es, which stim­u­lates the im­mune sys­tem and you get pro­found an­ti-tu­mor ac­tiv­i­ty,” Shawver said. “But comes with very bad side ef­fects. We’re try­ing to pre­serve the ef­fi­ca­cious part, but not have the side ef­fects.”

Lots of com­pa­nies (in­clud­ing the ever-pop­u­lar Nek­tar) are try­ing to make IL-2 ther­a­pies, and of­ten they do this by PE­Gy­lat­ing their drug, there­by im­prov­ing the half-life. But the treat­ment still has side ef­fects be­cause IL-2 can both sup­press and ac­ti­vate the im­mune sys­tem.  With Syn­throx’ ex­pand­ed ge­net­ic al­pha­bet, the com­pa­ny can take a dif­fer­ent ap­proach, tweak­ing the make­up of the pro­tein it­self by care­ful­ly plac­ing syn­thet­ic amino acids and the PEG mol­e­cule to boost the mol­e­cule’s ef­fi­ca­cy and lim­it un­want­ed (and off-tar­get) side ef­fects.

Pe­ter Thomp­son

Syn­thorx has achieved this al­ready in pre­clin­i­cal stud­ies, and now it’s tak­ing it in­to the clin­ic in the first half of 2019. The re­cent Se­ries C round, led by Or­bimed and in­clud­ing new in­vestors Medicxi and Os­age Uni­ver­si­ty Part­ners (along with ex­ist­ing in­vestors), will fund the progress of the IL-2 pro­gram.

“We are im­pressed with the da­ta for Syn­thorin IL-2 and how the Syn­thorx tech­nol­o­gy plat­form can specif­i­cal­ly iden­ti­fy and se­lect pro­tein mod­i­fi­ca­tions that re­sult in the de­sired ther­a­peu­tic ef­fect and phar­ma­co­ki­net­ics,” said Or­biMed’s Pe­ter Thomp­son, who’s join­ing the Syn­thorx board. “It is easy to see how this plat­form could be ap­plied to a va­ri­ety of pro­tein ther­a­peu­tics.”

Shawver says the IL-2 drug will pri­mar­i­ly be used as a com­bo ther­a­py used in tan­dem with im­muno-on­col­o­gy agents. But op­por­tu­ni­ties ex­tend way be­yond on­col­o­gy. The com­pa­ny has plans to ap­ply the tech to the au­toim­mune space, per­haps tack­ling dis­eases like Crohn’s and rheuma­toid arthri­tis.

Im­age: Re­searchers at work in Syn­thorx’ lab. SYN­THORX

Brian Kaspar. AveXis via Twitter

AveX­is sci­en­tif­ic founder fires back at No­var­tis CEO Vas Narasimhan, 'cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly de­nies any wrong­do­ing'

Brian Kaspar’s head was among the first to roll at Novartis after company execs became aware of the fact that manipulated data had been included in its application for Zolgensma, now the world’s most expensive therapy.

But in his first public response, the scientific founder at AveXis — acquired by Novartis for $8.7 billion — is firing back. And he says that not only was he not involved in any wrongdoing, he’s ready to defend his name as needed.

I reached out to Brian Kaspar after Novartis put out word that he and his brother Allen had been axed in mid-May, two months after the company became aware of the allegations related to manipulated data. His response came back through his attorneys.

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UP­DAT­ED: An em­bold­ened As­traZeneca splurges $95M on a pri­or­i­ty re­view vouch­er. Where do they need the FDA to hus­tle up?

AstraZeneca is in a hurry.

We learned this morning that the pharma giant — not known as a big spender, until recently — forked over $95 million to get its hands on a priority review voucher from Sobi, otherwise known as Swedish Orphan Biovitrum.

That marks another step down on price for a PRV, which allows the holder to slash 4 months off of any FDA review time.

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Martin Shkreli [via Getty]

Pris­on­er #87850-053 does not get to add drug de­vel­op­er to his list of cred­its

Just days after Retrophin shed its last ties to founder Martin Shkreli, the biotech is reporting that the lead drug he co-invented flopped in a pivotal trial. Fosmetpantotenate flunked both the primary and key secondary endpoints in a placebo-controlled trial for a rare disease called pantothenate kinase-associated neurodegeneration, or PKAN.

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We­bi­nar: Re­al World End­points — the brave new world com­ing in build­ing fran­chise ther­a­pies

Several biopharma companies have been working on expanding drug labels through the use of real world endpoints, combing through the data to find evidence of a drug’s efficacy for particular indications. But we’ve just begun. Real World Evidence is becoming an important part of every clinical development plan, in the soup-through-nuts approach used in building franchises.

I’ve recruited a panel of 3 top experts in the field — the first in a series of premium webinars — to look at the practical realities governing what can be done today, and where this is headed over the next few years, at the prodding of the FDA.

ZHEN SU — Merck Serono’s Senior Vice President and Global Head of Oncology
ELLIOTT LEVY — Amgen’s Senior Vice President of Global Development
CHRIS BOSHOFF — Pfizer Oncology’s Chief Development Officer

A premium subscription to Endpoints News is required to attend this webinar. Please upgrade to either an Insider or Enterprise plan for access. Already have Endpoints Premium? Please sign-in below. You can contact our Subscriptions team at help@endpointsnews.com with any issues.

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Am­gen, Al­ler­gan biosim­i­lar of Roche's block­buster Rit­ux­an clears an­oth­er US piv­otal study 

Novartis $NVS may have given up, but Amgen $AMGN and Allergan $AGN are plowing ahead with their knockoff of Roche’s blockbuster biologic Rituxan in the United States.

Their copycat, ABP 798, was found to have a clinically equivalent impact as Rituxan — meeting the main goal of the study involving CD20-positive B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients. This is the second trial supporting the profile of the biosimilar. In January, it came through with positive PK results in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

BeiGene and Mus­tang nail down spe­cial FDA sta­tus for top drugs; Roche bags added cov­er­age for Hem­li­bra

→ BeiGene $BGNE is getting a boost in its drive to field a rival to Imbruvica. The FDA has offered an accelerated review to zanubrutinib, a BTK inhibitor that has posted positive results for mantle cell lymphoma. The PDUFA date lands on February 27, 2020. The drug scored breakthrough status at the beginning of the year.

→ BeiGene isn’t the only biopharma company to gain special regulatory status today. Mustang Bio $MBIO and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital announced that MB-107, a lentiviral gene therapy for the treatment of X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency, also known as bubble boy disease, has been granted Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy status.

Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion re­vives bid to get drug list prices on TV ads

The Trump administration is not giving up just yet. On Wednesday, the HHS filed an appeal against a judge’s decision in July to overturn a ruling obligating drug manufacturers to disclose the list price of their therapies in television adverts — hours before it was stipulated to go into effect.

In May, the HHS published a final ruling requiring drugmakers to divulge the wholesale acquisition cost— of a 30-day supply of the drug — in tv ads in a bid to enhance price transparency in the United States. The pharmaceutical industry has vehemently opposed the rule, asserting that list prices are not what a typical patient in the United States pays for treatment — that number is typically determined by the type of (or lack thereof) insurance coverage, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs. Although there is truth to that claim, the move was considered symbolic in the Trump administration’s healthcare agenda to hold drugmakers accountable in a climate where skyrocketing drug prices have incensed Americans on both sides of the aisle.

Ver­sant-backed Chi­nook gets a $65M launch round for its dis­cov­ery quest in a resur­gent kid­ney field

Versant is once again stepping off the beaten track in biotech to see if they can blaze a trail of their own in a field that has looked too thorny to many investors for years.

The venture group and their partners at Apple Tree are bringing their latest creation out of stealth mode today. Born in Versant’s Inception Sciences’ Chinook Therapeutics is betting that its preclinical take on kidney disease can get an early lead among the companies starting up in the field.

Sir An­drew Dil­lon, NICE's first — and on­ly — chief ex­ec­u­tive to step down next year

Using a laptop borrowed from his former employer, South London’s St George’s Hospital, Sir Andrew Dillon set about establishing NICE — launched by the then health secretary Frank Dobson — in 1999.  On Thursday, the UK cost-effectiveness watchdog said its first and only chief executive — Dillon — is stepping down in March 2020.

Back in the day, decisions about which drugs and interventions were funded by the National Health Service (NHS) were made at the local level, but this ‘postcode prescribing’ system was fraught with skewed healthcare deployment making the structure unsustainable. A national system was deemed necessary — and NICE was formed to bridge that gap.