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.”

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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So what hap­pened with No­var­tis' gene ther­a­py group? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1,500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

Af­ter sell­ing to Genen­tech, the old Je­cure team is back at an RNA-fo­cused start­up — and more en­thu­si­as­tic than ever

When Genentech swooped in to buy NASH-focused Jecure Therapeutics back in 2018, a handful of the startup’s executives weren’t quite ready to disperse.

It had been just three years since Jecure launched with a preclinical portfolio of NLRP3 inhibitors — and the takeover came sooner than anyone, including CEO Jeff Stafford, had expected. So he got talking with James Veal and Gretchen Bain, two serial entrepreneurs in charge of Jecure’s R&D.

Rafaèle Tordjman (Jeito Capital)

Con­ti­nu­ity and di­ver­si­ty: Rafaèle Tord­j­man's women-led VC firm tops out first fund at $630M

For a first-time fund, Jeito Capital talks a lot about continuity.

Rafaèle Tordjman had spotlighted that concept ever since she started building the firm in 2018, promising to go the extra mile(s) with biotech entrepreneurs while pushing them to reach patients faster.

Coincidentally, the lack of continuity was one of the sore spots listed in a report about the European healthcare sector published that same year by the European Investment Bank — whose fund is one of the LPs, alongside the American pension fund Teacher Retirement System of Texas and Singapore’s Temasek, to help Jeito close its first fund at $630 million (€534 million). As previously reported, Sanofi had chimed in €50 million, marking its first investment in a French life sciences fund.

When ef­fi­ca­cy is bor­der­line: FDA needs to get more con­sis­tent on close-call drug ap­provals, agency-fund­ed re­search finds

In the exceedingly rare instances in which clinical efficacy is the only barrier to a new drug’s approval, new FDA-funded research from FDA and Stanford found that the agency does not have a consistent standard for defining “substantial evidence” when flexible criteria are used for an approval.

The research comes as the FDA is at a crossroads with its expedited-review pathways. The accelerated approval pathway is under fire as the agency recently signed off on a controversial new Alzheimer’s drug, with little precedent to explain its decision. Meanwhile, top officials like Rick Pazdur have called for a major push to simplify and clarify all of the various expedited pathways, which have grown to be must-haves for sponsors of nearly every newly approved drug.

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Lat­est news: It’s a no on uni­ver­sal boost­ers; Pa­tient death stuns gene ther­a­py field; In­side Tril­li­um’s $2.3B turn­around; and more

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