Launched by MIT grads, a small start­up gets $20M to back a ro­bot­ics rev­o­lu­tion in cell ther­a­py man­u­fac­tur­ing

As co-di­rec­tor of an ex­per­i­men­tal cel­lu­lar ther­a­py process de­vel­op­ment and man­u­fac­tur­ing group at UCSF spe­cial­iz­ing in T cell ther­a­pies for au­toim­mune con­di­tions, Jonathan Es­en­sten has learned a lot about the chal­lenges in­volved when his group hand-fash­ions a cell ther­a­py. Es­en­sten — who was a post­doc in Wen­dell Lim’s lab and counts the leg­endary Jef­frey Blue­stone as a men­tor — gives them all high marks at be­ing great at what they do, but time and again there are vari­a­tions in the treat­ments they con­struct.

And that’s a prob­lem.

Jonathan Es­en­sten

Es­en­sten can’t of­fer any da­ta, and these are high­ly trained in­di­vid­u­als we’re talk­ing about, but “my in­tu­ition is that small dif­fer­ences in tech­nique can make a dif­fer­ence in the out­come of a cell ther­a­py man­u­fac­tur­ing run,” he says.

As any­one in bio­phar­ma can tell you, vari­a­tions in ther­a­peu­tic out­put are not OK. You want to set a stan­dard and hit it every time.

So when Fred Pari­et­ti came in a cou­ple of years ago to take a first-hand look at what they were do­ing at UCSF and see for him­self what cell ther­a­py man­u­fac­tur­ing was all about, they got to talk­ing.

It wasn’t just that there were vari­a­tions in the prod­uct, Es­en­sten says. It’s ex­pen­sive to get a trained group to­geth­er. Hard­er to pre­vent them from be­ing raid­ed by the grow­ing mul­ti­tude of biotechs in the area, who find it easy to beat a uni­ver­si­ty salary.

For Pari­et­ti, who joined a band of MIT grads and jour­neyed to the Bay Area to launch a ro­bot­ics up­start called Mul­ti­ply Labs, it was an eye-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and one that led to a unique al­liance. Now Pari­et­ti’s start­up is fund­ing work in Es­en­sten’s group to de­vel­op a ro­bot­ic sys­tem to do that work — an ap­proach that he feels has near-term com­mer­cial po­ten­tial.

And af­ter rais­ing $5 mil­lion in seed cash to get them go­ing, he’s won over some key con­verts. The team at Mul­ti­ply can now boast of a $20 mil­lion fol­lowup round to get the prod­uct through test­ing and in­to the hands of an in­dus­try he feels is ripe for this kind of pre­ci­sion man­u­fac­tur­ing tech as cell ther­a­pies boom.

Cas­din Cap­i­tal led the round, with new in­vestors Lux Cap­i­tal and Pathfind­er, Founders Fund’s ear­ly stage in­vest­ment ve­hi­cle, al­so par­tic­i­pat­ing along with seed in­vestors Fifty Years and Garage Cap­i­tal.

Fred Pari­et­ti

Mul­ti­ply got start­ed man­u­fac­tur­ing a ro­bot­ics sys­tem that can make cus­tom de­signed pills, of­ten us­ing spe­cif­ic com­bos — a grow­ing fea­ture in the man­u­fac­tur­ing world. Once they get their new sys­tem set up for cell ther­a­pies, Pari­et­ti al­so be­lieves that there are a num­ber of play­ers in the cell ther­a­py field that can see the ad­van­tage of us­ing ro­bots in place of peo­ple, work­ing 24/7, with­out any vari­a­tions in tech­nique. With no pen­chant for mak­ing mis­takes. And no new salary de­mands.

“Es­sen­tial­ly the cell ther­a­py process­es are all lab process­es adapt­ed for GMP, but they were nev­er cre­at­ed to scale … ,” he says. “Peo­ple make mis­takes. That’s the de­f­i­n­i­tion of peo­ple.”

“The peo­ple are the biggest dan­ger for the drug,” Pari­et­ti adds. “In cell ther­a­py you want to pro­tect the drug from the peo­ple, not the peo­ple from the drug … Our job is to make stuff ef­fi­cient and au­to­mat­ed.”

It’s al­so a ques­tion of ef­fi­cien­cy, which re­volves around what Pari­et­ti calls par­al­lelism. With au­to­mat­ed sys­tems, you can con­tin­u­ous­ly use mul­ti­ple biore­ac­tors in par­al­lel. With peo­ple, or the al­ter­na­tive sys­tems on the mar­ket that Es­en­sten points to, biore­ac­tors have to be seg­re­gat­ed in in­di­vid­ual spaces to avoid cross con­t­a­m­i­na­tion.

That’s a big job, but Mul­ti­ply is still small, with 10 peo­ple plus an­oth­er 5 con­sul­tants. That should grow sig­nif­i­cant­ly with the cur­rent ven­ture round.

The in­spi­ra­tion for the team start­ed at MIT, where Pari­et­ti, who was work­ing on ex­oskele­tons in the ro­bot­ics group, met up with Al­ice Me­loc­chi, who was de­vot­ed to health­care sys­tems. To­geth­er, they built a team that tar­get­ed man­u­al drug man­u­fac­tur­ing, get­ting a foothold with their cap­sule tech. Now they feel equipped to go af­ter a much more am­bi­tious tar­get in cell ther­a­pies.

Up­dat­ed: FDA re­mains silent on or­phan drug ex­clu­siv­i­ty af­ter last year's court loss

Since losing a controversial court case over orphan drug exclusivity last year, the FDA’s Office of Orphan Products Development has remained entirely silent on orphan exclusivity for any product approved since last November, leaving many sponsors in limbo on what to expect.

That silence means that for more than 70 orphan-designated indications for more than 60 products, OOPD has issued no public determination on the seven-year orphan exclusivity in the Orange Book, and no new listings of orphan exclusivity appear in OOPD’s searchable database, as highlighted recently by George O’Brien, a partner in Mayer Brown’s Washington, DC office.

Thomas Gad, Y-mAbs Therapeutics founder and interim CEO

FDA re­jects Y-mAbs’ neu­rob­las­toma drug af­ter tak­ing is­sue with clin­i­cal tri­al de­sign

Uncertainty about clinical trial evidence has led the FDA to hand down a complete response letter for Y-mAbs’ neuroblastoma drug, casting a cloud on the future of a candidate that had gone through a long development journey in a rare pediatric cancer.

Y-mAbs said it’s disappointed “but not surprised” given that the agency’s oncology drug advisory committee had voted 16-0 against its drug’s approval a few weeks ago.

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Philip Tagari switch­es Am­gen's dis­cov­ery lab for in­sitro's ma­chine learn­ing tools; CEO Joaquin Du­a­to to chair J&J's board

In February, Philip Tagari will take a few days of retirement and then immediately return to industry. He won’t be leading the therapeutics discovery unit for a large biopharma, though.

He’ll trade in his Amgen hat for chief scientist at a machine learning startup that has reeled in hundreds of millions in capital to lay the groundwork for a much-hyped new model of drug discovery that aims to speed up the time to new clinical assets.

Raul Rodriguez, Rigel Pharma CEO

Rigel Phar­ma scores FDA ap­proval for leukemia, kick­ing off show­down with Servi­er in IDH1

When Rigel Pharma bought olutasidenib from Forma Therapeutics, it acquired a drug that already secured a PDUFA date at the FDA — for February 2023. But regulators are ready to give their OK sooner than that.

The FDA has approved the IDH1 inhibitor as a treatment for adult patients with relapsed or refractory acute myeloid leukemia who have a susceptible IDH-1 (isocitrate dehydrogenase-1) mutation as detected by an FDA-greenlit test. Rigel will market it as Rezlidhia.

Tim Pearson, Carrick Therapeutics CEO

Pfiz­er backs $60M in­fu­sion in­to Car­rick, teams up on breast can­cer treat­ment

In a big week for Carrick Therapeutics, the company announced $60 million in funding for its lead breast cancer drug and development of a second program, as well as a collaboration with Pfizer for combo development.

The $35 million from Pfizer comes with an agreement under which Pfizer will support Carrick’s Phase II study of samuraciclib in combination with Pfizer’s Faslodex for advanced breast cancer. Along with the investment, Adam Schayowitz, vice president and development head of breast cancer, colorectal cancer and melanoma at Pfizer global product development, will join Carrick’s scientific advisory board.

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Paul Hudson, Sanofi CEO (Romuald Meigneux/Sipa via AP Images)

Sanofi and Am­gen are bring­ing cash to cov­er the ta­ble stakes for the Hori­zon M&A game

With the market cap on Horizon Therapeutics $HZNP pushed up to the $23 billion mark today, one of the Big Pharmas in the hunt for a major league buyout deal signaled it’s playing the M&A game with cash.

Paris-based Sanofi, where CEO Paul Hudson has been largely focused on some risky biotech acquisitions to win some respect for its future pipeline prospects, issued a statement early Friday — complying with Rule 2.12 of the Irish takeover rules — making clear that while the certainty or size of an offer can’t be determined, any offer “will be solely in cash.” And Amgen CEO Robert Bradway came right in behind him, filing a statement on the London Stock Exchange overnight that any offer they may make will “likely” be in cash as well.

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Illustration: Assistant Editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

As mon­ey pours in­to dig­i­tal ther­a­peu­tics, in­sur­ance cov­er­age crawls

Talk therapy didn’t help Lily with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. But a video game did.

As the 10-year-old zooms through icy waters and targets flying creatures on the snow-capped planet Frigidus, she builds attention skills, thanks to Akili Interactive Labs’ video game EndeavorRx. She’s now less anxious and scattered, allowing her to stay on a low dose of ADHD medication, according to her mom Violet Vu.

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Eli Lil­ly’s Alzheimer’s drug clears more amy­loid ear­ly than Aduhelm in first-ever head-to-head. Will it mat­ter?

Ahead of the FDA’s decision on Eli Lilly’s Alzheimer’s drug donanemab in February, the Big Pharma is dropping a first cut of data from one of the more interesting trials — but less important in a regulatory sense — at an Alzheimer’s conference in San Francisco.

In the unblinded 148-person study, Eli Lilly pitted its drug against Aduhelm, Biogen’s drug that won FDA approval but lost Medicare coverage outside of clinical trials. Notably, the study didn’t look at clinical outcomes, but rather the clearance of amyloid, a protein whose buildup is associated with Alzheimer’s disease, in the brain.

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As the amox­i­cillin short­age drags on, sev­er­al sen­a­tors pres­sure FDA and HHS for so­lu­tions

With the US staring down several drug shortages this year, one in particular is now catching lawmakers’ attention.

A bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and FDA commissioner Robert Califf expressng “strong concern” about the amoxicillin shortage for patients and general public health. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) are pushing for FDA and HHS to start working more forcefully to address the amoxicillin shortage along with the other drug shortages.