Sam Cooper, Phenomic AI

Jim Al­li­son and Pam Shar­ma back a Cana­di­an AI up­start seek­ing to solve the tu­mor stro­ma puz­zle

Jim Al­li­son

A new com­pa­ny out of Toron­to is seek­ing to put AI and ma­chine learn­ing to the test, us­ing the ad­vanced tech­nol­o­gy to iden­ti­fy tar­gets in sol­id can­cers and oth­er chal­leng­ing dis­eases. And it has the back­ing of the in­dus­try’s res­i­dent pow­er cou­ple.

Phe­nom­ic AI of­fi­cial­ly launched Wednes­day with $6 mil­lion in seed fund­ing and an­nounced that Jim Al­li­son and Pam Shar­ma have joined its sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­so­ry board. The biotech is al­so bring­ing on new CSO Mike Briskin, who has a pro­fes­sion­al his­to­ry with Al­li­son and Shar­ma af­ter work­ing with them and Third Rock Ven­tures to found Jounce Ther­a­peu­tics about a decade ago.

“We’ve been close over the years ever since we start­ed Jounce,” Briskin said. “We start­ed talk­ing about dif­fer­ent ar­eas to move in­to be­yond the T cell … they’ve seen some of the da­ta from some of their col­leagues at MD An­der­son, and they re­al­ly felt like this was some­thing that was worth be­ing in­volved in.”

Pad­ma­nee Shar­ma

Fi­nanc­ing was led by CTI and joined by AV8, Lu­mi­nous and Vi­va BioIn­no­va­tor. Cur­rent in­vestors Garage Cap­i­tal, Hike and Can­tos al­so joined the round.

The com­pa­ny is plan­ning on us­ing its plat­form not on­ly for drug de­vel­op­ment, but to re­search how dif­fer­ent cells act in dis­ease states, main­ly the tu­mor stro­ma. A part of the mi­croen­vi­ron­ment present in sol­id tu­mors, the stro­ma es­sen­tial­ly acts as a bar­ri­er that pre­vents a body’s im­mune sys­tem from at­tack­ing the tu­mor.

Ba­si­cal­ly, the hu­man body builds a wall to pro­tect it­self from the tu­mor, but the tu­mor then hi­jacks the wall and in­stalls its own army to keep the im­mune sys­tem out, CEO Sam Coop­er said.

“That’s re­al­ly what we’re up against, not just a brick wall but a brick wall filled with sol­diers that are fight­ing off every­thing we’re throw­ing at it,” Coop­er said. “What’s ob­vi­ous­ly clear in can­cer though is that you’ve got dif­fer­ent walls in dif­fer­ent pa­tients, there’s no sim­ple way of do­ing this.”

Mike Briskin

While the func­tion of the stro­ma has been known for some time, Briskin said, on­ly re­cent­ly did re­search come about sug­gest­ing that it’s al­so in­volved in some cell-to-cell in­ter­ac­tions and im­mune re­spons­es, such as sig­nal­ing to T cells to stay away from tu­mors. One of Phe­nom­ic’s goals is to de­vel­op drugs that don’t re­quire im­mune sys­tem re­pres­sion in or­der to break the cy­cle of those in­ter­ac­tions.

That’s where the com­pa­ny’s AI plat­form comes in­to play. Through its tech­nol­o­gy, Coop­er said Phe­nom­ic is ca­pa­ble of mod­el­ing how cells and stro­ma com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er. Then, re­searchers ex­tract “high-di­men­sion­al read­outs” from the mod­els to de­ter­mine what the cells are do­ing and re­late it back to how a tar­get is af­fect­ed.

“This is all too dif­fi­cult to process at scale as a per­son,” Coop­er said. “Where be­fore you had a mash of dif­fer­ent cells and you’ve got no idea of what’s re­al­ly hap­pen­ing, now we can say this in­di­vid­ual cell is sup­press­ing a T cell and pre­vent­ing it from get­ting to the can­cer. And then we can tar­get that with drugs.”

Phe­nom­ic isn’t dis­clos­ing its ini­tial two tar­gets just yet, but Coop­er said the com­pa­ny’s drug can­di­dates will be fo­cused around can­cer as­so­ci­at­ed fi­brob­lasts, or CAFs. Can­cers that show the least re­sponse to im­mune ther­a­pies typ­i­cal­ly have high­er stro­mal con­tent, and Phe­nom­ic is hop­ing that at­tack­ing the CAFs may prove piv­otal for new­er drug can­di­dates.

If all goes well, Phe­nom­ic won’t be pro­duc­ing typ­i­cal check­point in­hibitor drugs. In fact, Coop­er said that due to the re­al­i­ty of can­cer, they may sign on ex­ist­ing in­hibitors to use in com­bi­na­tion with an an­ti-stro­mal com­pound.

Ul­ti­mate­ly, the com­pa­ny was in­spired by Al­li­son’s work. Should their even­tu­al drugs con­vert im­mune ther­a­py-re­sis­tant tu­mors in­to those that can be treat­ed, if even a lit­tle bit, Phe­nom­ic will con­sid­er that a suc­cess.

“The rev­o­lu­tion in this field at the start was Jim Al­li­son’s il­lus­tra­tion of us­ing a check­point in­hibitor in metasta­t­ic melanoma, re­sult­ing in what in turn were long-term re­spons­es,” Briskin said. “You can see that now in some of these pa­tients, and our goal is to ex­tend those ben­e­fits to a greater num­ber of pa­tients.”

5AM Ven­tures: Fu­el­ing the Next Gen­er­a­tion of In­no­va­tors

By RBC Capital Markets
With Andy Schwab, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at 5AM Ventures

Key Points

Prescription Digital Therapeutics, cell therapy technologies, and in silico medicines will be a vital part of future treatment modalities.
Unlocking the potential of the microbiome could be the missing link to better disease diagnosis.
Growing links between academia, industry, and venture capital are spinning out more innovative biotech companies.
Biotech is now seen by investors as a growth space as well as a safe haven, fuelling the recent IPO boom.

Hal Barron, GSK via YouTube

What does $29B buy you in Big Phar­ma? In Glax­o­SmithK­line’s case, a whole lot of un­com­fort­able ques­tions about the pipeline

Talk about your bad timing.

A little over a week ago, GSK R&D chief Hal Barron marked his third anniversary at the research helm by taking a turn at the virtual podium during JP Morgan to make the case that he and his team had built a valuable late-stage pipeline capable of churning out more than 10 blockbusters in the next 5 years.

And then, just days later, one of the cancer drugs he bet big on as a top prospect — bintrafusp, partnered with Merck KGaA — failed its first pivotal test in non-small cell lung cancer.

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Janet Woodcock (AP Images)

End­points poll: Janet Wood­cock takes the (in­ter­im) helm at the FDA. And a large ma­jor­i­ty of our read­ers want her to stay there

It’s official: Janet Woodcock is now the acting chief of the FDA.

And — according to an Endpoints poll — most industry readers would like her to stay there, although a significant minority is strongly opposed.

To recap: Joe Biden is reportedly choosing between Woodcock and former deputy FDA commissioner Joshua Sharfstein as his nominee for the permanent position. Given their respective track records, the decision is set to determine the agency’s lodestar for years to come.

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What’s next for End­points — and how to sup­port our in­de­pen­dent bio­phar­ma news mis­sion

The firehose of biopharma news is gushing these days.

That’s why broader and deeper is the theme for 2021 at Endpoints. You can expect new coverage outside our core R&D focus, with deeper reporting in some key areas. When John Carroll and I launched Endpoints nearly five years ago, we were wading in waist-high waters. Now we’re a team of 25 full-time staffers (and growing) with plans to cover the flood of biopharma news, Endpoints-style.

Fast on Glax­o­SmithK­line's heels, Au­rinia wins OK to steer a sec­ond lu­pus nephri­tis drug straight to the mar­ket

GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta isn’t alone in the small circle of approved lupus nephritis drugs anymore.

Little Aurinia Pharmaceuticals has gotten the green light from the FDA to start marketing its first and only program, voclosporin, under the brand name Lupkynis — something CEO Peter Greenleaf says it’s been ready to do since December.

Regulators went right down to the wire on the decision, keeping the company and the entire salesforce it’s already assembled on its toes.

Janet Woodcock and Joshua Sharfstein (AP, Images)

Poll: Should Joshua Sharf­stein or Janet Wood­cock lead the FDA from here?

It’s time for a new FDA commissioner to come on board, a rite of passage for Joe Biden’s administration that should help seal the new president’s rep on seeking out the experts to lead the government over the next 4 years.

As of now, the competition for the top job appears to have narrowed down to 2 people: The longtime CDER chief Janet Woodcock and Joshua Sharfstein, the former principal deputy at the FDA under Peggy Hamburg. Both were appointed by Barack Obama.

Eli Lil­ly's an­ti­body cuts risk of Covid-19 by up to 80% among the most vul­ner­a­ble — but will it have a place next to vac­cines?

Eli Lilly says bamlanivimab lowered the risk of contracting symptomatic Covid-19 in a first-of-its-kind trial involving nursing home residents and staff, paving the way for a new option to protect against the virus.

But how big of an impact it might have, and what role it will play, at a time vaccines are being rolled out to the exact population it is targeting still remains unclear.

Among 965 participants in the study — all of whom tested negative for the coronavirus at baseline — the number of symptomatic cases reported in the bamlanivimab arm was 57% lower than that in the placebo arm (odds ratio 0.43, p=0.00021). In addition to that primary endpoint, all secondary endpoints reached statistical significance.

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Hal Barron, GSK R&D chief (GSK via YouTube)

Glax­o­SmithK­line's $4B bis­pe­cif­ic can­cer drug al­liance with Mer­ck KGaA hit by big set­back with a PhI­II fail­ure on NSCLC

Close to 2 years ago, GSK’s R&D team eagerly agreed to pay up to $4 billion-plus to ally itself with Merck KGaA on a mid-stage bispecific called bintrafusp alfa, which intrigued them with the combination of a TGF-β trap with the anti-PD-L1 mechanism in one fusion protein.

But today the German pharma company says that their lead study on lung cancer was a bust, as independent monitors said there was no reason to believe that the experimental drug — targeting PD-L1/TGF-Beta — could beat Keytruda.

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Charlie Fuchs, Roche and Genentech global head of product development for oncology and hematology (Yale Cancer Center)

Yale can­cer spe­cial­ist Char­lie Fuchs tapped as new glob­al de­vel­op­ment chief for Roche/Genen­tech

Roche and their big sub Genentech have just recruited a top cancer specialist at Yale to head up global product development in oncology and hematology.

I just got word that the pharma giant, which leads one of the most active cancer research operations in the world, recruited Charlie Fuchs, director of the Yale Cancer Center and physician-in-chief of Smilow Cancer Hospital. He’ll join the global operation March 1 and will be based in South San Francisco, where Genentech is based.

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