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

Biotech and Big Phar­ma: A blue­print for a suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship

Strategic partnerships have long been an important contributor to how drugs are discovered and developed. For decades, big pharma companies have been forming alliances with biotech innovators to increase R&D productivity, expand geographical reach and better manage late-stage commercialization costs.

Noël Brown, Managing Director and Head of Biotechnology Investment Banking, and Greg Wiederrecht, Ph.D., Managing Director in the Global Healthcare Investment Banking Group at RBC Capital Markets, are no strangers to the importance of these tie-ups. Noël has over 20 years of investment banking experience in the industry. Before moving to the banking world in 2015, Greg was the Vice President and Head of External Scientific Affairs (ESA) at Merck, where he was responsible for the scientific assessment of strategic partnership opportunities worldwide.

No­var­tis' sec­ond at­tempt to repli­cate a stun­ning can­cer re­sult falls flat

Novartis’ hopes of turning one of the most surprising trial data points of the last decade into a lung cancer drug has taken another setback.

The Swiss pharma announced Monday that its IL-1 inhibitor canakinumab did not significantly extend the lives or slow the disease progression of patients with previously untreated locally advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer when compared to standard of-care alone.

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Robert Califf (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP Images, File)

As buzz on Califf FDA nom heats up, in­dus­try and agency in­sid­ers of­fer a strong nod for the ‘per­fect’ choice

For once in this long, dramatic road to finding a new FDA commissioner, there’s been some continuity. Both CNN and Politico reported this weekend that Rob Califf met with President Biden to discuss the permanent commish role, following earlier news broken by the Washington Post that all signs point to Califf.

Although there may be a few Democrats who continue to grandstand about the dangers of COI (Califf has worked for Verily, sits on the board of Centessa Pharmaceuticals, and has other ties to industry research), with the pandemic ongoing and the need for some kind of continuity at FDA mounting, Califf is likely to meet the same fate as when he first won Senate confirmation in 2016, by a vote of 89-4 — Bernie Sanders and 6 others didn’t vote.

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AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot (Raphael Lafargue/Abaca/Sipa USA)

A com­bo of As­traZeneca's Imfinzi and chemo wins where oth­ers have failed in piv­otal bil­iary tract test

Looking to run with the big dogs in the PD-(L)1 class, AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi has a tall hill to climb to compete in an increasingly bustling market. An aggressive combo strategy for the drug has paid off so far, and now AstraZeneca is adding another notch to its belt.

A combo of Imfinzi (durvalumab) and chemotherapy significantly extended the lives of first-line patients with advanced biliary tract cancer over chemo alone, according to topline results from the Phase III TOPAZ-1 study revealed Monday.

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Sean Ianchulev, Eyenovia CEO and CMO

Re­cent court de­ci­sion push­es FDA to re­ject and re­clas­si­fy drug-de­vice com­bo, crush­ing shares

Back in April, the FDA lost a crucial court case in which its broad discretion of regulating medical products that might satisfy the legal definitions of either “drug” and/or “medical device” was sharply curtailed.

In addition to the appeals court ruling that Genus Medical Technologies’ contrast agent barium sulfate (aka Vanilla SilQ) should not be considered a drug, as the FDA had initially ruled, but as a medical device, the agency also was forced to spell out which drugs would transition to devices as a result of the ruling.

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Peter Greenleaf, Aurinia CEO

Af­ter pass­ing on Ac­celeron, Bris­tol My­ers eyes bolt-on ac­qui­si­tion of au­toim­mune spe­cial­ist — re­port

Bristol Myers Squibb is looking to beef up its autoimmune portfolio by scooping up Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, Bloomberg reported.

The recent overtures to Aurinia, relayed by anonymous insiders, came just as Bristol Myers turned down buyout talks with partners at Acceleron — which Merck ultimately struck a deal to acquire for $11.5 billion. Bristol Myers has reportedly decided to cash out on its minority stake, likely bagging $1.3 billion in the process, while keeping the royalty deals on two of Acceleron’s blood disorder drugs.

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So — that pig-to-hu­man trans­plant; Po­ten­tial di­a­betes cure reach­es pa­tient; Ac­cused MIT sci­en­tist lash­es back; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

We’re incredibly excited to welcome Beth Bulik, seasoned pharma marketing reporter, to the team. You can find much of her work in our new Marketing channel — and in her weekly newsletter, Endpoints PharmaRx, which will launch in early November. Add it to your subscriptions here.

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NYU surgeon transplants an engineered pig kidney into the outside of a brain-dead patient (Joe Carrotta/NYU Langone Health)

No, sci­en­tists are not any clos­er to pig-to-hu­man trans­plants than they were last week

Steve Holtzman was awoken by a 1 a.m. call from a doctor at Duke University asking if he could put some pigs on a plane and fly them from Ohio to North Carolina that day. A motorcyclist had gotten into a horrific crash, the doctor explained. He believed the pigs’ livers, sutured onto the patient’s skin like an external filter, might be able to tide the young man over until a donor liver became available.

UP­DAT­ED: Agenus calls out FDA for play­ing fa­vorites with Mer­ck, pulls cer­vi­cal can­cer BLA at agen­cy's re­quest

While criticizing the FDA for what may be some favoritism towards Merck, Agenus on Friday officially pulled its accelerated BLA for its anti-PD-1 inhibitor balstilimab as a potential second-line treatment for cervical cancer because of the recent full approval for Merck’s Keytruda in the same indication.

The company said the BLA, which was due for an FDA decision by Dec. 16, was withdrawn “when the window for accelerated approval of balstilimab closed,” thanks to the conversion of Keytruda’s accelerated approval to a full approval four months prior to its PDUFA date.

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