In a break­through, Chi­nese re­searchers clone mon­keys hop­ing to pro­vide bet­ter dis­ease mod­els

Hua Hua (left) and Zhong Zhong (right), the first two mon­keys cre­at­ed by so­mat­ic cell nu­clear trans­fer.
Cred­it: Qiang Sun and Mu-ming Poo / Chi­nese Acad­e­my of Sci­ences

Two mon­keys are mak­ing head­lines around the world. Now bare­ly two months old, they might help lead the way down the path to some of the Holy Grails of bio­med­ical re­search — at least that’s the hope of their cre­ators.

Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, the iden­ti­cal long-tailed macaques, were cre­at­ed at the Chi­nese Acad­e­my of Sci­ences In­sti­tute of Neu­ro­science in Shang­hai with the same method that gave birth to Dol­ly the sheep in 1996. Known as so­mat­ic cell nu­clear trans­fer, or SC­NT, it takes the nu­cle­us of a dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed cell from one an­i­mal and in­fus­es it in­to an emp­ty egg cell from an­oth­er. An elec­tric cur­rent trig­gers the egg to de­vel­op in­to an ear­ly em­bryo, and the re­sult­ing fe­tus, grown in a sur­ro­gate, would be a repli­ca of the an­i­mal that do­nat­ed the nu­cle­us.

Sci­en­tists have cloned more than 20 species this way, but cloning pri­mates re­mained a unique chal­lenge. Pre­vi­ous at­tempts have nev­er pro­gressed be­yond the ear­ly em­bryo stage.

The break­through here was the in­tro­duc­tion of two mod­u­la­tors — specif­i­cal­ly, Kdm4d mR­NA and a hi­s­tone deacety­lase in­hibitor called tri­cho­statin A — in the one-cell stage that switched on or off a num­ber of genes that were af­fect­ing em­bryo de­vel­op­ment.

From there, the re­searchers yield­ed what they hope to be the first of many ge­net­i­cal­ly uni­form mon­key mod­els that, com­bined with gene edit­ing tools, could shed light on dis­ease mech­a­nisms and of­fer ther­a­peu­tic test­ing ground for dis­eases that have elud­ed hu­man un­der­stand­ing, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkin­son’s. Those are ar­eas where mice mod­els have proven woe­ful­ly in­ad­e­quate in terms of pre­dict­ing hu­man re­ac­tions to drugs; mul­ti­ple oth­er ge­net­ic dis­eases could al­so be tar­gets.

But — as one would rea­son­ably ex­pect — this cloning suc­cess car­ries im­por­tant caveats. First off, it ba­si­cal­ly on­ly works in fe­tal cells. While two ba­bies were born us­ing adult mon­key cu­mu­lus, they were both short-lived and one had ab­nor­mal body de­vel­op­ment.

Fur­ther­more, the low suc­cess rate means pro­duc­ing a pop­u­la­tion of cloned mon­keys large enough to be ef­fec­tive would re­quire an ex­po­nen­tial­ly larg­er num­ber of em­bryos and sur­ro­gates. At that scale, the prac­ti­cal and eth­i­cal ques­tions al­ready sur­round­ing pri­mate re­search would like­ly snow­ball in­to some­thing even big­ger.

To put things in­to per­spec­tive, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were the on­ly lucky ones from six preg­nan­cies from 21 sur­ro­gates with 79 im­plant­ed em­bryos be­tween them. An ad­di­tion­al 22 preg­nan­cies were con­firmed among 42 sur­ro­gates in the adult cell group.

So no, cloned mon­keys are not com­ing to a lab near you any­time soon. But it’s sure to set off — and it al­ready has — a flur­ry of de­bate and, pos­si­bly, new re­search.

Once fu­ri­ous over No­var­tis’ da­ta ma­nip­u­la­tion scan­dal, the FDA now says it’s noth­ing they need to take ac­tion on

Back in the BP era — Before Pandemic — the FDA ripped Novartis for its decision to keep the agency in the dark about manipulated data used in its application for Zolgensma while its marketing application for the gene therapy was under review.

Civil and criminal sanctions were being discussed, the agency noted in a rare broadside at one of the world’s largest pharma companies. Notable lawmakers cheered the angry regulators on, urging the FDA to make an example of Novartis, which fielded Zolgensma at $2.1 million — the current record for a one-off therapy.

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Covid-19 roundup: GSK, Am­gen tai­lor R&D work to fit the coro­n­avirus age; Doud­na's ge­nomics crew launch­es di­ag­nos­tic lab

You can add Amgen and GSK to the list of deep-pocket drug R&D players who are tailoring their pipeline work to fit a new age of coronavirus.

Following in the footsteps of a lineup of big players like Eli Lilly — which has suspended patient recruitment for drug studies — Amgen and GSK have opted to take a more tailored approach. Amgen is intent on circling the wagons around key studies that are already fully enrolled, and GSK has the red light on new studies while the pandemic plays out.

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In a stun­ning set­back, Amarin los­es big patent fight over Vas­cepa IP. And its high-fly­ing stock crash­es to earth

Amarin’s shares $AMRN were blitzed Monday evening, losing billions in value as reports spread that the company had lost its high-profile effort to keep its Vascepa patents protected from generic drugmakers.

Amarin had been fighting to keep key patents under lock and key — and away from generic rivals — for another 10 years, but District Court Judge Miranda Du in Las Vegas ruled against the biotech. She ruled that:
(A)ll the Asserted Claims are invalid as obvious under 35 U.S.C.§ 103. Thus, the Court finds in favor of Defendants on Plaintiff’s remaining infringementclaim, and in their favor on their counterclaims asserting the invalidity of the AssertedClaims under 35 U.S.C. § 103.

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Covid-19 roundup: J&J, BAR­DA set ear­ly 2021 fin­ish line for $1B vac­cine race; FDA al­lows emer­gency drug use, ahead of piv­otal da­ta

J&J has zeroed in on a Covid-19 vaccine candidate that it hopes to begin testing in humans by September this year — with the extraordinary goal of getting it ready for emergency use in early 2021. And together with BARDA, it’s committing $1 billion to make it happen.

That kind of accelerated timeline would fall on the fast side of NIAID director Anthony Fauci’s well-publicized prediction that it would be another 12 to 18 months before a vaccine can be available for public use. A Phase I trial of Moderna’s mRNA vaccine began two weeks ago, and both the biotech and fellow mRNA player CureVac have discussed similar, if not even faster, timelines for emergency use among healthcare workers.

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As­traZeneca says its block­buster Farx­i­ga proved to be a game-chang­er in CKD — wrap­ping PhI­II ear­ly

If the FDA can still hold up its end of the bargain, AstraZeneca is already on a short path to scooping up a cutting-edge win with a likely approval for their SGLT2 drug Farxiga in cutting the risk of heart failure. Now the pharma giant says it can point to solid evidence that the drug — initially restricted to diabetes — also works for chronic kidney disease, potentially adding a blockbuster indication for the franchise.

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It is 'kind of a proven tech­nol­o­gy': Hep B vac­cine mak­er joins glob­al hunt for coro­n­avirus vac­cine

Using lab-grown proteins that are engineered to mimic the architecture of viruses to induce an immune response, VBI Vaccines is joining the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine — harnessing technology that has initially been proved safe in early trials as a prophylactic for cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection.

Unlike the raft of the companies in the Covid-19 vaccine race — including Moderna, CureVac and J&J — VBI is taking a pan-coronavirus approach, by developing a vaccine that will encompass Covid-19, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Can a pair of top AveX­is alum­ni steer a new gene ther­a­py up­start to R&D glo­ry? 3 VCs bet $60M on it

VCs love few things more than a proven executive team when it comes to launching a new company. And now a group of A-listers has turned to a pair of top execs out of AveXis to steer the latest gene therapy player into the clinic.

The biotech is Waltham, MA-based Affinia and the two execs are Sean Nolan and Rick Modi — the former CEO and CBO respectively of AveXis, the gene therapy pioneer that fetched $8.7 billion in a sale to Novartis. Nolan has now taken the chairman’s role at Affinia while Modi moves up to the CEO post at the company.

Un­de­terred by a pan­dem­ic, Gilde Health­care rais­es their largest fund yet

When Pieter van der Meer started raising the capital for Gilde Healthcare’s fifth fund in the waning months of 2019, he had his eyes on a different chain of events that could change the healthcare system and perhaps even play to his firm’s advantage: The US presidential election.

Since raising their third fund in 2011, the 34-year-old Dutch firm had focused on value-based care. They chose late-stage biotechs that came up with new devices and delivery systems for de-risked established compounds, and when they chose preclinical biotechs, they spoke with potential pharma partners, payers and regulators to ask where and at what prices the drug made sense. As the Democratic primary became a contest over how to lower healthcare costs, it looked like a strategy that could pay off.

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Gilead CEO Dan O'­Day of­fers a de­tailed ex­pla­na­tion on remde­sivir ac­cess — re­as­sur­ing an­a­lysts that Covid-19 da­ta are com­ing fast

After coming under heavy fire from consumer groups ready to pummel them for grabbing the FDA’s orphan status for remdesivir — reserved to encourage the development of rare disease therapies — Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day had some explaining to do about the company’s approach to providing access to this drug to patients suffering from Covid-19. And he set aside time over the weekend to patiently explain how they are making their potential pandemic drug available in a new program — one he feels can better be used to address a growing pack of infected patients desperately seeking remdesivir under compassionate use provisions.

In addition to trying to reassure patients that they will once again have an avenue to pursue access, O’Day also reassured some analysts who had been fretting that China’s quick comeback from the coronavirus outbreak could derail its ultra-fast schedule for testing the drug in patients. The data are still expected in a few weeks, he says in the letter, putting the readout in April.

O’Day emphasizes that Gilead intends to pursue a pricing approach that will make this drug widely available — if it proves effective and safe. But no one is quite sure just what the longterm value would be, given the work being done on a variety of vaccines that may be rolled out as early as this fall — at least to the most heavily threatened groups.

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