Thomas Gajewski, David Steinberg. (CRI, Pyxis)

Bay­er, Long­wood back star re­searcher's deep dive in­to the tu­mor mi­croen­vi­ron­ment for new I/O tar­gets

From PD-1 tar­get­ing to the RAS path­way to the STING com­plex, Thomas Gajew­s­ki has spent the past two decades of his ca­reer de­cod­ing the var­i­ous ways the im­mune sys­tem can be un­leashed to de­fend against can­cer. So when the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go pro­fes­sor comes around to putting all his find­ings in­to a new plat­form for find­ing new tar­gets, VCs and phar­ma groups alike pay at­ten­tion.

“He’s been study­ing T cells for 20 years, plus he’s one of the world’s lead­ers if not the world leader in the space,” David Stein­berg, part­ner at Long­wood Fund, said. “Fur­ther­more, let me add he did a lot of the foun­da­tion­al re­search and al­so some of the sem­i­nal clin­i­cal tri­als in the ex­ist­ing set of I/O agents. He un­der­stands the space re­al­ly well, he un­der­stands the cur­rent strengths, and I think he un­der­stood re­al­ly well what was miss­ing, so he knew where to look.”

Long­wood is launch­ing Pyx­is On­col­o­gy with Gajew­s­ki and John Flavin, a sea­soned life sci­ences en­tre­pre­neur and for­mer ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist him­self. The ini­tial Se­ries A comes in at $22 mil­lion; Leaps by Bay­er took the lead­ing role while Agent Cap­i­tal and Ipsen chipped in.

As can be ex­pect­ed from a start­up that’s rapid­ly beef­ing up its op­er­a­tions and so­lid­i­fy­ing its IP foun­da­tion, Stein­berg, the CEO, is tight-lipped about the ex­act na­ture of their work ex­cept that they are brand new tar­gets that, to the best of their knowl­edge, are not in any dis­closed clin­i­cal pipelines any­where.

By ex­am­in­ing the tu­mor mi­croen­vi­ron­ment, he added, Gajew­s­ki had been able to iden­ti­fy new bi­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­na me­di­at­ing the ac­tion be­tween the tu­mor and the T cell — po­ten­tial­ly un­lock­ing a sec­ond lev­el of T cell in­hi­bi­tion by can­cer.

Jak Knowles Bay­er

Click on the im­age to see the full-sized ver­sion

Bay­er jumped right on board, VP of ven­ture in­vest­ments Jak Knowles said.

Hav­ing on­ly first met with Stein­berg in April, “this is ac­tu­al­ly, I think, the deal that we’ve closed the fastest since Leaps’ ex­is­tence,” he told me.

While Pyx­is is start­ing out on the tried and true path of an­ti­body de­vel­op­ment, he be­lieves it can be­come an even big­ger play in the I/O field by find­ing the next tar­get for a T cell or NK cell-based ther­a­py.

But it’s still ear­ly days, and both the com­pa­ny and the syn­di­cate are clear­ly tak­ing it step by step. Pyx­is now has more board mem­bers and sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­sors than staffers, but Stein­berg plans to bal­ance that out by ramp­ing up to 15 to 20.

The SAB com­pris­es:

  • Michael Atkins, Deputy Di­rec­tor of the George­town-Lom­bar­di Com­pre­hen­sive Can­cer Cen­ter and the Scholl Pro­fes­sor and Vice-Chair of the De­part­ment of On­col­o­gy at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty School of Med­i­cine.
  • Lisa But­ter­field, VP of the Park­er In­sti­tute for Can­cer Im­munother­a­py and Ad­junct Pro­fes­sor of Mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gy and Im­munol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Fran­cis­co.
  • Alan Ko­r­man, Se­nior Vice Pres­i­dent of Hu­man Im­munol­o­gy at Vir Biotech­nol­o­gy and For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent of Im­muno-On­col­o­gy Dis­cov­ery at Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb.
  • Ja­son Luke, As­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor of Med­i­cine and Di­rec­tor of the Can­cer Im­munother­a­peu­tics Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh School of Med­i­cine.

Mean­while, Knowles and his Bay­er col­league Lu­cio Ian­none will serve on the board, chaired by Flavin, to ad­vise on po­ten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tions and com­bos.

“Part of the rea­son we were ex­cit­ed to work with both Bay­er and Ipsen on this is be­cause it’s sort of re­in­force­ment of the in­ter­est and ex­cite­ment about these kinds of ap­proach­es from with­in the phar­ma in­dus­try,” Stein­berg said.

Con­quer­ing a silent killer: HDV and Eiger Bio­Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals

Hepatitis delta, also known as hepatitis D, is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis delta virus (HDV) that results in the most severe form of human viral hepatitis for which there is no approved therapy.

HDV is a single-stranded, circular RNA virus that requires the envelope protein (HBsAg) of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) for its own assembly. As a result, hepatitis delta virus (HDV) infection occurs only as a co-infection in individuals infected with HBV. However, HDV/HBV co-infections lead to more serious liver disease than HBV infection alone. HDV is associated with faster progression to liver fibrosis (progressing to cirrhosis in about 80% of individuals in 5-10 years), increased risk of liver cancer, and early decompensated cirrhosis and liver failure.
HDV is the most severe form of viral hepatitis with no approved treatment.
Approved nucleos(t)ide treatments for HBV only suppress HBV DNA, do not appreciably impact HBsAg and have no impact on HDV. Investigational agents in development for HBV target multiple new mechanisms. Aspirations are high, but a functional cure for HBV has not been achieved nor is one anticipated in the forseeable future. Without clearance of HBsAg, anti-HBV investigational treatments are not expected to impact the deadly course of HDV infection anytime soon.

No­var­tis is ax­ing 150 ear­ly dis­cov­ery jobs as CNI­BR shifts fo­cus to the de­vel­op­ment side of R&D

Novartis is axing some 150 early discover jobs in Shanghai as it swells its staff on the drug development side of the equation in China. And the company is concurrently beefing up its investment in China’s fast-growing biotech sector with a plan to add to its investments in local VCs.

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Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during the Nevada Democrats' "First in the West" event at Bellagio Resort & Casino on November 17, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada (Getty Images)

Eliz­a­beth War­ren pro­pos­es us­ing com­pul­so­ry li­cens­ing, an­titrust ac­tions to break bio­phar­ma’s con­trol of drug pric­ing — and here are the block­busters she’s tar­get­ing first

Nancy Pelosi’s drug pricing bill may have sparked some industrial strength headaches on the money side of biopharma, but Elizabeth Warren seems determined to become biopharma’s Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Warren, one of the top-ranked candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination backing Medicare for all, is circulating a new plan that promises to break the industry’s grip on drug prices — and she has some very specific examples of how she would do it.
The Warren plan would rely on the federal government’s compulsory licensing powers to seize the IP of blockbuster drugs like Truvada and Harvoni to provide them at a fraction of what Gilead sells them for in the US. And she would throw some antitrust actions in as needed to rein in the price of Humira, AbbVie’s cash cow that continues to dominate the list of the most profitable therapeutics on the market.
Notably, she plans to rely on the powers already vested in the federal government, rather than suggest remedies that would require the assent of a deeply divided Congress.
In addition to the blockbusters on the list, Warren sends a clear signal that the same tactics would be used to beef up the supply of cheap antibiotics, as needed. And the same action could befall any other therapy patients can’t afford.

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Mer­ck’s $1B cash gam­ble pays off with a sur­pris­ing PhI­II car­dio suc­cess for Bay­er’s heart drug veri­ciguat

More than 3 years after Merck stepped up and paid $1 billion in cold, hard cash to gain the US commercial rights to Bayer’s high-risk heart drug vericiguat in a broad-ranging cardio alliance, the partners say their Phase III study has come through with promising data and a date with regulators.
We don’t have the data, and won’t until they put it out at an upcoming scientific session, but Merck touted the results, saying that their big Phase III VICTORIA study hit the primary endpoint  — with vericiguat combined with available therapies reducing “the risk of the composite endpoint of heart failure hospitalization or cardiovascular death in patients with worsening chronic heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF) compared to placebo when given in combination with available heart failure therapies.”
Depending on the hard data, and how it breaks out with the combinations used, this drug could pose a threat to Novartis’ blockbuster drug Entresto, currently at $1.6 billion while analysts expect peak sales to hit $4 billion.
The drug is a soluble guanylate cyclase (sGC) stimulator, which Bayer and Merck have had high hopes for. Evidently, so did cardiologists. Cowen’s last analysis set potential sales at $400 million in 2024, but that number could go up significantly now.
Cowen’s Steve Scala noted this morning:
Vericiguat could be a lucrative product for Merck, and one with potentially under-appreciated value. At Cowen’s Therapeutics Conference in September 2019, 80% of specialists anticipated a positive result from VICTORIA whereas only 51% of investors shared this optimism.
Investigators recruited more than 5,000 patients at more than 600 centers in 42 countries for this study — one of the most expensive propositions in R&D. Millions of people in the US suffer from heart failure with reduced ejection fraction when the failing heart fails to contract properly to eject blood into the system. Bayer holds ex-US rights to the drug and also stands to earn cash from the $1.1 billion in milestones Merck agreed on for their collaboration.
Remarkably, the drug was pushed into Phase III despite failing the mid-stage trial — though investigators flagged a success at the high dose of 10 mg. In VICTORIA, researchers started patients at 2.5 mg and then titrated up to 5 and then 10 mg.

Alk­er­mes forges $950M biotech buy­out deal in a bold bet on an ear­ly-stage CNS drug plat­form

Alkermes $ALKS is investing $100 million cash and committing up to $850 million more in milestones in a big wager on a very early-stage CNS discovery platform. And the biotech is adding $20 million more to fund next year’s new research work on the platform it’s acquiring in today’s buyout with an eye to expanding the research work in oncology.

The biotech, helmed by Richard Pops, is buying Rodin Therapeutics, which had focused early on Alzheimer’s disease. Pops’ buyout, though, isn’t focused solely on the most troublesome sector in pharma R&D.

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Left to right: Arthur Pappas, Robert Nelsen, Peter Kolchinsky Doug Cole and David Beier

In rare po­lit­i­cal for­ay, top biotech in­vestors urge Con­gress to re­ject drug pric­ing bill

Thirteen of the top biotech venture capitalists in the country wrote a letter last week warning lawmakers that if Congress passes a drug pricing bill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has put before lawmakers, they won’t be able to invest in biomedical research at their current rate, and patients will suffer.

“If policies such as those included within H.R. 3, the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, are passed, our ability to continue to invest in future biomedical innovation will be severely constrained, thus crushing the hopes of millions of patient waiting for the next breakthroughs to treat or cure their cancers, rare genetic diseases, Alzheimer’s, or other serious and life-threatening conditions,” they wrote in a letter addressed to the highest-ranking Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate and acquired by Endpoints News. 

Dicer­na scores broad, 'rest of liv­er' deal with No­vo Nordisk, bag­ging $225M in cash to hit some 30 tar­gets with RNAi plat­form

Turns out Dicerna wasn’t done with deals yet after locking in $200 million upfront from Roche for a hepatitis B cocktail two weeks ago.

Novo Nordisk has signed on as the latest partner to its GalXC RNAi platform, handing over $175 million in cash to claim any and all targets of interest in liver-related cardio-metabolic diseases that are not already reserved in previous pacts. The Danish drugmaker — which has signaled its interest to expand considerably beyond its core diabetes franchise into areas like NASH — is also purchasing $50 million worth of Dicerna’s equity at a 25% premium of $21.93 per share. More research payments and milestones extending to the billions are on the line.

Gene ther­a­py wins the in­side track at EMA; PPD files for IPO

→ Gene therapy maker Orchard Therapeutics has been granted an accelerated assessment for OTL-200 by the EMA’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP). The gene therapy — in development in partnership with the San Raffaele-Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy (SR-Tiget) in Milan, Italy — being used towards the treatment of metachromatic leukodystrophy.

→ Pharmaceutical Product Development has announced that its parent company, PPD, Inc has submitted a draft to the SEC relating to the proposal of an IPO of the parent company’s common stock. Number of shares and price range have not yet been determined.

Pfiz­er gets biosim­i­lar ap­proved for Hu­mi­ra, set­ting up com­pe­ti­tion — in 2023

In the story lawmakers and drug pricing reform advocates have told about the drug industry, there are perhaps few greater villains than Humira and its maker AbbVie.

Between 2012 and 2018, AbbVie upped the drug’s annual after-rebates cost from $19,000 to $38,000 in the US, with sticker prices now over $60,000 per year — increases that led to accusations of price gouging, most recently from Democratic presidential frontrunner Elizabeth Warren.