Yanay Ofran (L) and Anat Binur (Ukko)

Leaps by Bay­er backs a pro­tein en­gi­neer­ing start­up tak­ing on Aim­mune — and Nestlé — in peanut al­ler­gy

Lit­tle cap­sules of peanut pow­der drove Nestlé’s $2.6 bil­lion buy­out of Aim­mune. Now, with $40 mil­lion in new fund­ing, a fledg­ling biotech is promis­ing to bring a more so­phis­ti­cat­ed ver­sion of that pro­tein ther­a­py that can go much, much fur­ther.

Ukko’s goal is two-pronged — with the ini­tial prod­ucts span­ning ther­a­peu­tic and food — but it’s ground­ed in the same pro­tein en­gi­neer­ing plat­form, co-founder and CEO Anat Bin­ur told End­points News.

Leaps by Bay­er is lead­ing the Se­ries B, which Bin­ur says will fund the start of hu­man stud­ies for its im­munother­a­py for peanut al­ler­gy with­in the next three years and get its gluten prod­uct ready for the mar­ket, gear­ing to­ward peo­ple with gluten sen­si­tiv­i­ty.

Juer­gen Eck­hardt

“Giv­en Bay­er’s foot­print across health­care and agri­cul­ture, we got su­per ex­cit­ed about Ukko, be­cause it re­al­ly cuts right across those two ar­eas of in­ter­est,” said Juer­gen Eck­hardt, who leads the Bay­er ven­ture arm.

While the ap­proval of Aim­mune’s Pal­forzia has changed the field, safe­ty re­mains a big hur­dle for peo­ple deal­ing with peanut al­ler­gies and their clin­i­cians, ac­cord­ing to Bin­ur. The idea, af­ter all, is to ex­pose peo­ple to the tox­ic al­ler­gens and de­sen­si­tize them through re­peat re­ac­tions.

Rather than tak­ing the whole peanut pro­tein, Ukko crawls through da­ta from pa­tient sam­ples to put to­geth­er “one of the biggest maps” pin­point­ing what it is in the al­ler­gen that’s trig­ger­ing the im­mune re­ac­tion. Pow­ered by com­pu­ta­tion­al tools, its plat­form then de­signs care­ful­ly al­tered pro­teins that are rid of it but can still ed­u­cate the im­mune sys­tem in­to tol­er­at­ing re­al peanuts.

Yanay Ofran — Bin­ur’s long­time friend and a com­pu­ta­tion­al bi­ol­o­gy ex­pert at Bar-Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty in Tel Aviv — came up with that con­cept when he was study­ing how mol­e­cules bind or avoid each oth­er.

“Ba­si­cal­ly al­ler­gy be­gins when a cer­tain class of an­ti­bod­ies, IgE an­ti­bod­ies, specif­i­cal­ly rec­og­nizes a nook or cran­ny on the peanut pro­teins,” the co-founder said. “Our pro­teins do not have those nooks and cran­nies that the IgE an­ti­bod­ies rec­og­nize. So we make them trans­par­ent to the an­ti­bod­ies that cause al­ler­gy. Every­thing else is there.”

The fin­ished prod­uct can come in the form of pow­der, sub­lin­gual treat­ment or an in­jectable. Ukko’s aim in clin­i­cal tri­als will be to show that when pa­tients con­sume the prod­uct, not on­ly will they not have an al­ler­gic re­ac­tion, but their thresh­old to an im­mune re­sponse will go down.

“There­fore you ex­pand pa­tient pool, change pa­tient ex­pe­ri­ence, you have less dropout rates, you can re­al­ly shift the way this prob­lem is solved,” Bin­ur said.

Peanut (and gluten on the food side) will just be a start. Ukko has its sight set on oth­er food pro­teins caus­ing al­ler­gies and sen­si­tiv­i­ties and re­cruit­ed top ex­perts to guide their fu­ture pipeline. They are Bern­hard Van Lengerich, for­mer CSO of Gen­er­al Mills; Ann Ven­e­man, for­mer US Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture; Wes­ley Burks and Ed­win Kim of the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na; Kari Nadeau at Stan­ford; Lyn­da Schnei­der at Boston Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal; and Raanan Shamir of Schnei­der Chil­dren’s Med­ical Cen­ter of Is­rael.

Oth­er in­vestors in­clude Con­ti­nen­tal Grain Com­pa­ny, Skyviews Life Sci­ence, Peak­Bridge Ven­tures, Fall Line Cap­i­tal and Blu1877 (Bar­il­la’s ven­ture/in­no­va­tion arm). Khosla Ven­tures, In­no­va­tion En­deav­ors, and TIME Ven­tures, and the in­vest­ment fund of Marc Be­nioff had backed Ukko since the Se­ries A.

“Bear in mind that we be­lieve that since our pro­teins do not cause al­ler­gy, we will be able to treat with high­er dos­es and then maybe have stronger ef­fects that may be more durable,” Ofran said. “Even if we are just like oth­er treat­ments with our ef­fi­ca­cy, but we re­move the safe­ty chal­lenges, that would be an amaz­ing break­through.”

Tar­get­ing a Po­ten­tial Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of Cer­tain Can­cers with DNA Dam­age Re­sponse

Every individual’s DNA is unique, and because of this, every patient responds differently to disease and treatment. It is astonishing how four tiny building blocks of our DNA – A, T, C, G – dictate our health, disease, and how we age.

The tricky thing about DNA is that it is constantly exposed to damage by sources such as ultraviolet light, certain chemicals, toxins, and even natural biochemical processes inside our cells.¹ If ignored, DNA damage will accumulate in replicating cells, giving rise to mutations that can lead to premature aging, cancer, and other diseases.

Tom Barnes (Orna)

The mR­NA era is here. MPM be­lieves the fu­ture be­longs to oR­NA — and Big Phar­ma wants a seat at the ta­ble

If the ultra-fast clinical development of Covid-19 vaccines opened the world’s eyes to the promises of messenger RNA, the subsequent delays in supply offered a crash course on the ultra-complex process of producing them. Even before the formulation and fill-finish steps, mRNA is the precious end product from an arduous journey involving enzyme-aided transcription, modification and purification.

For Bristol Myers Squibb, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, Gilead’s Kite and Astellas, it’s time to rethink the way therapeutic RNA is engineered.

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Fol­low biotechs go­ing pub­lic with the End­points News IPO Track­er

The Endpoints News team is continuing to track IPO filings for 2021, and we’ve designed a new tracker page for the effort.

Check it out here: Biopharma IPOs 2021 from Endpoints News

You’ll be able to find all the biotechs that have filed and priced so far this year, sortable by quarter and listed by newest first. As of the time of publishing on Feb. 25, there have already been 16 biotechs debuting on Nasdaq so far this year, with an additional four having filed their S-1 paperwork.

Steve Cutler, Icon CEO (Icon)

In the biggest CRO takeover in years, Icon doles out $12B for PRA Health Sci­ences to fo­cus on de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal work

Contract research M&A had a healthy run in recent years before recently petering out. But with the market ripe for a big buyout and the Covid-19 pandemic emphasizing the importance of decentralized trials, Wednesday saw a tectonic shift in the CRO world.

Icon, the Dublin-based CRO, will acquire PRA Health Sciences for $12 billion in a move that will shake up the highest rungs of a fragmented market. The merger would combine the 5th- and 6th-largest CROs by 2020 revenue, according to Icon, and the merger will set the newco up to be the second-largest global CRO behind only IQVIA.

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Michael Rome (Foresite)

In search of 'house­hold health­care brands of the fu­ture,' Fore­site Cap­i­tal rais­es $969M to sa­ti­ate a tech-heavy ap­petite

Back in April 2018, just before Foresite Capital unveiled its $668 million Fund IV and a strategy to focus on tech-driven life science bets, one of its portfolio companies quietly made an announcement.

Fount Therapeutics, a drug discovery outfit backed by Foresite and Eshelman Ventures, had raised $22 million in Series A cash to hatch several fledgling spinouts. “The first ‘NewCo,’ Kinnate, will be focused on developing precision oncology treatments,” read a press release.

CEO Fabrice Chouraqui (Cellarity)

Flag­ship up­start Cel­lar­i­ty gath­ers $123M to fi­nance its ex­plo­ration of cell be­hav­ior, blaz­ing a new path to build­ing a broad pipeline

Right from the start, the discovery plan at Flagship-spawned Cellarity was to take their cues from cell biology and follow them to new drugs. Rather than start with a target and develop a drug to hit it, they’d use new technology to digitally map cell behavior and then develop new drugs from what they learned.

“Over the past decades it has always been about finding a target, about reducing a disease to a single molecular target,” says Fabrice Chouraqui, the Novartis vet who was recruited to run the operation about 9 months ago. “And that approach has produced thousands of life-saving medicines. Yet, this approach has limitations. A molecular target approach is fine when you talk about a simple disease, but for very complex diseases like neurodegeneration, like metabolic disease, like cancer, you hope to really harness the complexity of human biology.

Masayoshi Son, SoftBank CEO (glen photo/Shutterstock)

Japan's Soft­Bank plots bil­lions in biotech in­vest­ments in move that could keep the val­u­a­tion flood ris­ing — re­port

The valuation crazy train in biotech continues to roll into the new year with more than a dozen companies taking a chance on Nasdaq and money flowing in from all sides. Now, a Japanese institutional investor is reportedly weighing an entry into the market in a big way — will it keep the bitcoin-esque flood rising?

Already a part-time investor in biotech, SoftBank could drop billions of dollars into the industry as part of helmsman Masayoshi Son’s plan to spend around $80 billion of the firm’s own assets, according to a report from Bloomberg citing people familiar with the plan.

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S&P ex­pects steady ero­sion in Big Phar­ma's cred­it pro­file in 2021 as new M&A deals roll in — but don't un­der­es­ti­mate their un­der­ly­ing strength

S&P Global has taken a look at the dominant forces shaping the pharma market and come to the conclusion that there will be more downgrades than upgrades in 2021 — the 8th straight year of steady decline.

But it’s not all bad news. Some things are looking up, and there’s still plenty of money to be made in an industry that enjoys a 30% to 40% profit margin, once you factor in steep R&D expenses.

Tal Zaks, Moderna CMO (AP Photo/Rodrique Ngowi, via still image from video)

CMO Tal Zaks bids Mod­er­na a sur­prise adieu as biotech projects $18.4B in rev­enue, plots post-Covid ex­pan­sion

How do you exit a company after six years in style? Developing one of the most lucrative and life-saving products in pharma history is probably not the worst way to go.

Tal Zaks, Moderna’s CMO since 2015, will leave the mRNA biotech in September, the biotech disclosed in their annual report this morning. The company has already retained the recruitment firm Russell Reynolds to find a replacement.

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