James Wil­son turns to old men­tor for gene ther­a­py star­tup's star-stud­ded $115M launch round

Gene ther­a­pies have long held promise for rare dis­eases — many of which are mono­genic — as an el­e­gant cure that cor­rects the sin­gu­lar un­der­ly­ing ge­net­ic de­fects. The ex­e­cu­tion, though, has been any­thing but el­e­gant, spawn­ing headaches about safe­ty is­sues and de­liv­ery meth­ods.

James Wil­son

Penn pro­fes­sor James Wil­son knows the roller coast­er ride all too well. And as the field gains steam fol­low­ing the his­toric ap­proval of the first gene ther­a­py with sev­er­al more lined up at the FDA, he is team­ing up with a rare dis­ease ex­pert and an in­dus­try vet to de­vel­op new ther­a­peu­tics us­ing a tech­nol­o­gy that he’s helped per­fect.

Emerg­ing out of a re­search, col­lab­o­ra­tion and li­cense agree­ment with Penn’s Gene Ther­a­py Pro­gram and Or­phan Dis­ease Cen­ter, Pas­sage Bio has packed its list of sup­port­ers with mar­quee bio­phar­ma in­vestors: Or­biMed Ad­vi­sors, Fra­zier Health­care Part­ners, Ver­sant Ven­tures, New Leaf Ven­ture Part­ners, Vi­vo Cap­i­tal and Lil­ly Asia Ven­tures.

Stephen Squin­to

They are col­lec­tive­ly de­vot­ing $115.5 mil­lion to Pas­sage Bio’s plan of de­vel­op­ing five AAV-based ther­a­pies for rare mono­genic dis­eases of the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem, tak­ing over once its aca­d­e­m­ic part­ners fin­ish the IND-en­abling pre­clin­i­cal work. Un­der the pact with Penn, the biotech might al­so nab a few more pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams and li­cense new IP lat­er.

Pas­sage Bio will start with two in­di­ca­tions with an eye for clin­i­cal en­try in ear­ly 2020: GM1 gan­gliosi­do­sis (GM1), a neu­ron-de­stroy­ing dis­or­der most com­mon in in­fants; and fron­totem­po­ral de­men­tia, which over­whelm­ing­ly af­fects the el­der­ly.

Alex­ion co-founder and Or­biMed part­ner Stephen Squin­to is run­ning the shop as in­ter­im CEO, while Tachi Ya­ma­da — a VC at Fra­zier for­mer­ly of Glax­o­SmithK­line and Take­da — takes on the chair­man’s role.

As Xcon­o­my notes, Ya­ma­da was an old men­tor of Wil­son’s who of­fered cru­cial sup­port in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of a clin­i­cal tri­al that led to the death of a teenag­er, Jesse Gelsinger, and sent the gene ther­a­py field in­to a harsh win­ter.

Tachi Ya­ma­da

Wil­son has since co-found­ed Re­genxbio and ad­vised Sol­id Bio, a biotech de­vel­op­ing a gene ther­a­py for Duchenne mus­cu­lar dy­s­tro­phy. A year ago, how­ev­er, he abrupt­ly re­signed from Sol­id Bio’s board and sub­se­quent­ly sound­ed an alarm on high-dose AAV stud­ies based on tox­ic re­ac­tions in mon­keys.

There was no men­tion of that in the state­ment about Pas­sage Bio Thurs­day. In­stead, Wil­son her­ald­ed the “tru­ly unique part­ner­ship.”

“Our team at Penn is ex­treme­ly ex­pe­ri­enced and has been on the cut­ting edge of AAV re­search for over 20 years,” he said. “We are con­fi­dent in this team’s abil­i­ty to move new treat­ments for rare CNS mono­genic dis­eases through clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment in an ef­fort to one day pro­vide new treat­ment op­tions for pa­tients with chron­ic un­met needs with high mor­tal­i­ty.”

Covid-19 roundup: Eu­rope pur­chas­es 80M dos­es of Mod­er­na's vac­cine; CO­V­AXX se­cures $2.8B in emerg­ing mar­ket pre-or­ders

With the announcement of its vaccine efficacy data last week, Moderna is starting to line up customers for its Covid-19 mRNA jabs.

The Massachusetts-based biotech announced Wednesday it has agreed to sell an initial round of 80 million doses to the European Commission, with the option to double the amount to 160 million. Once the member states rubber stamp the approval, the deal will be finalized.

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Pascal Soriot (AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: As­traZeneca, Ox­ford on the de­fen­sive as skep­tics dis­miss 70% av­er­age ef­fi­ca­cy for Covid-19 vac­cine

On the third straight Monday that the world wakes up to positive vaccine news, AstraZeneca and Oxford are declaring a new Phase III milestone in the fight against the pandemic. Not everyone is convinced they will play a big part, though.

With an average efficacy of 70%, the headline number struck analysts as less impressive than the 95% and 94.5% protection that Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have boasted in the past two weeks, respectively. But the British partners say they have several other bright spots going for their candidate. One of the two dosing regimens tested in Phase III showed a better profile, bringing efficacy up to 90%; the adenovirus vector-based vaccine requires minimal refrigeration, which may mean easier distribution; and AstraZeneca has pledged to sell it at a fraction of the price that the other two vaccine developers are charging.

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Jason Kelly, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter Ko­dak de­ba­cle, US lends $1.1B to a syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy com­pa­ny and their big Covid-19, mR­NA plans

In mid-August, as Kodak’s $765 million government-backed push into drug manufacturing slowly fell apart in national headlines, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO Jason Kelly got a message from his company’s government liaison: HHS wanted to know if they, too, might want a loan.

The government’s decision to lend Kodak three quarters of a billion dollars raised eyebrows because Kodak had never made drugs before. But Ginkgo, while not a manufacturing company, had spent the last decade refining new ways to produce materials inside cells and building automated facilities across Boston.

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Bob Nelsen (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images)

Bob Nelsen rais­es $800M and re­cruits a star-stud­ded board to build the 'Fox­con­n' of biotech

Bob Nelsen spent his pandemic spring in his Seattle home, talking on the phone with Luciana Borio, the scientist who used to run pandemic preparedness on the National Security Council, and fuming with her about the dire state of American manufacturing.

Companies were rushing to develop vaccines and antibodies for the new virus, but even if they succeeded, there was no immediate supply chain or infrastructure to mass-produce them in a way that could make a dent in the outbreak.

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Feng Tian, Ambrx CEO (Ambrx)

Af­ter 5 qui­et years, a for­mer Scripps spin­out rais­es $200M and an­nounces plans to try again at an IPO

The first time San Diego biotech Ambrx tried to go public in 2014, they failed and the company’s board switched to a radically different strategy: They sold themselves for an undisclosed amount to a syndicate of Chinese investors and pharma companies.

Now, after 5 quiet years, that syndicate has raised a mountain of cash and indicated they’ll soon make another bid to go public.

Earlier this month, Ambrx raised $200 million in what they billed as a crossover round financed by Fidelity, BlackRock, Cormorant Asset Management, HBM Healthcare Investments, Invus, Adage Capital Partners and Suvretta Capital Management. It’s the largest amount they’ve ever raised and, according to Crunchbase figures, more than doubles the total amount of VC capital collected since their launch 17 years ago.

FDA hands Liq­uidia and Re­vance a CRL and de­fer­ral, re­spec­tive­ly, as Covid-19 cre­ates in­spec­tion chal­lenge

Two biotechs said they got turned away by the FDA on Wednesday, in part due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

North Carolina-based Liquidia Technologies was handed a CRL for its lead pulmonary arterial hypertension drug, citing the need for more CMC data and on-site pre-approval inspections, which the FDA hasn’t been able to conduct due to travel restrictions. The agency also deferred its decision on Revance Therapeutics’ BLA for its frown line treatment, because it needs to inspect the company’s northern California manufacturing facility. The action, Revance emphasized, was not a CRL.

News brief­ing: FDA re­quests new tri­al for Reata's Friedre­ich's atax­ia pro­gram; J&J's Trem­fya picks up ex­pand­ed la­bel in Eu­rope

Three months after Reata Pharmaceuticals suggested its Friedreich’s ataxia program omaveloxolone could be delayed, the company revealed that is indeed going to be the case.

Reata $RETA shares took a nosedive Wednesday after the biotech revealed that the FDA said supplemental data for its pivotal trial did not strengthen the case for approval. As a result, the drug is likely to need another study before the FDA takes up the case.

Jef­frey Hat­field takes over from Diego Mi­ralles as CEO of Vi­vid­ion; Drag­on­fly scores a new ex­ec with COO Alex Lu­gov­skoy

→ San Diego protein degradation startup Vividion Therapeutics has made a change at the top with Jeffrey Hatfield taking the helm as CEO, replacing Diego Miralles six months after Roche forked over $135 million to collaborate with Vividion on their small molecule degraders. Hatfield is chairman of the board at miRagen Therapeutics and previously held the CEO job at Zafgen and Vitae Pharmaceuticals. He also had a series of leadership roles at Bristol Myers Squibb from 1996-2004, including SVP, immunology and virology divisions.

Chi­na opens the door for biotech in­vestors in Hong Kong to buy Shang­hai stocks, and vice ver­sa

When Shanghai’s STAR board began opening its doors to biotech, it was considered not just a rival to Nasdaq but also the stock exchange in Hong Kong. Those perceptions may take an amicable turn as China expands a mutual access program with the city.

The changes mean investors in mainland China will be able to own Hong Kong biotech chapter stocks, while those in Hong Kong — a much more internationally connected group — would have access to those listed on STAR. In effect, it turns the Shanghai market into a globally accessible exchange overnight while also broadening a key source of revenue for HKEX.