Adrian Gottschalk, Foghorn CEO

Mer­ck dan­gles up to $425 mil­lion to team with Flag­ship’s Foghorn Ther­a­peu­tics on drug­ging the shape of DNA

Two years af­ter it first emerged from stealth mode, Flag­ship’s Foghorn Ther­a­peu­tics has nabbed its first Big Phar­ma part­ner as Mer­ck signs on to the biotech’s vi­sion of drug­ging the very shape of DNA.

The deal, worth up to $425 mil­lion but with the up­front cash undis­closed, comes as Foghorn nears a piv­ot to a clin­i­cal stage biotech. The Cam­bridge-based com­pa­ny has added near­ly 60 staffers from the 25 it had when it first emerged out of Flag­ship and, CEO Adri­an Gottschalk said, they have fi­nal­ly re­fined the screen­ing tech­nol­o­gy at the heart of the com­pa­ny, with plans to file their first IND to­wards the end of the year.

“In the last 6 months, ac­tu­al­ly pri­or to the con­ver­sa­tions with Mer­ck, we had in­dus­tri­al­ized our abil­i­ty to in­ter­ro­gate the bi­ol­o­gy,” Gottschalk told End­points News. “We’ve made some very nice progress, re­al­ly start­ing from scratch sev­er­al years ago.”

First found­ed in 2016, Foghorn is one of a spate of re­cent biotechs that try to treat can­cer by tar­get­ing how genes are ex­pressed, as op­posed to try­ing to change the genes them­selves or in­hib­it the pro­teins they code for. Michael Gilman’s Ar­rakis Ther­a­peu­tics is built, like Foghorn, on drug­ging DNA reg­u­la­tors called tran­scrip­tion fac­tors and ear­li­er this year got $190 mil­lion up­front and “sev­er­al bil­lion” in mile­stones for a deal with Roche. Sy­ros, an­oth­er Flag­ship-backed com­pa­ny, at­tract­ed con­sid­er­able buzz sev­er­al years ago by go­ing af­ter so-called “su­per-en­hancers,” though they have since strug­gled to find trac­tion in the clin­ic. More broad­ly, the still-ju­ve­nile field has yield­ed few ma­jor in-hu­man suc­cess­es.

Mer­ck has al­ready sig­naled its be­lief in the ap­proach, at least in cer­tain man­i­fes­ta­tions. Last year, they bought up Pelo­ton Ther­aepeu­tics and its late-stage, kid­ney can­cer tran­scrip­tion fac­tor drug for $1 bil­lion in cash and an­oth­er $1 bil­lion in mile­stones.

Foghorn’s twist, Gottschalk said, is look­ing at how these fac­tors in­ter­act with these spher­i­cal struc­tures on top of DNA, called chro­matin re­mod­el­ing com­plex­es. Ba­si­cal­ly, hu­man DNA con­tains bil­lions of genes, not all of which are turned on at any point in time or in any cell. That DNA sits in tight­ly com­pact­ed strands called chro­matin at the nu­cle­us at the cen­ter of the cell, and one of the ways the body can de­cide which genes need to be turned on is to open and close those strands.

The mol­e­c­u­lar thing that de­ter­mines whether and where genes are turned on is the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween those tran­scrip­tion fac­tors that car­ry in­struc­tions and the chro­matin re­mod­el­ing com­plex that does the open­ing and clos­ing. Foghorn com­pares it to air traf­fic con­trol, the two types of pro­teins telling the genes where to launch and where not to launch. And Gottschalk cit­ed da­ta that sug­gest around 25% of can­cers can be chalked up in part to those bi­o­log­i­cal con­trollers get­ting their sig­nals crossed.

For the last four years, Foghorn has de­vel­oped a high-through­put screen­ing sys­tem to al­low their sci­en­tists to mod­el both the tran­scrip­tion fac­tors and the re­mod­el­ing com­plex­es and fig­ure out which mol­e­cules can mod­u­late each. Though “high-through­put screen­ing” is about as com­mon a word in the drug in­dus­try these days as “pan­cakes” are in the din­er in­dus­try, Gottschalk said that was no easy feat. The chro­matin re­mod­el­ing com­plex­es are just that — com­plex — and they need­ed to set up a sys­tem that could han­dle pro­teins as much as ten times as large as the ones most screens han­dle.

Un­der the new deal, Mer­ck has es­sen­tial­ly li­censed one of the fac­tors Foghorn has just be­gun test­ing, buy­ing ex­clu­siv­i­ty on any po­ten­tial drugs that emerge to tar­get it. In­ter­nal­ly, mean­while, Gottschalk said that af­ter years build­ing their sys­tems, the com­pa­ny is prepar­ing to soon bring a few of its 10 pre­clin­i­cal and un­named pro­grams in­to the clin­ic for sev­er­al ge­net­i­cal­ly-de­fined can­cers that cur­rent­ly have few good treat­ment op­tions.

“I think this bi­ol­o­gy has been un­ex­plored and un­ex­ploit­ed as drug, and I think the time is right,” Gottschalk said.

At the In­flec­tion Point for the Next Gen­er­a­tion of Can­cer Im­munother­a­py

While oncology researchers have long pursued the potential of cellular immunotherapies for the treatment of cancer, it was unclear whether these therapies would ever reach patients due to the complexity of manufacturing and costs of development. Fortunately, the recent successful development and regulatory approval of chimeric antigen receptor-engineered T (CAR-T) cells have demonstrated the significant benefit of these therapies to patients.

Stéphane Bancel, Moderna CEO

'This is not go­ing to be good': Mod­er­na CEO Ban­cel warns of a 'ma­te­r­i­al drop' in vac­cine ef­fi­ca­cy as Omi­cron spreads

Even as public health officials remain guarded about their comments on the likelihood Omicron will escape the reach of the currently approved Covid-19 vaccines, there’s growing scientific consensus that we’re facing a variant that threatens to overwhelm the vaccine barricades that have been erected.

Stéphane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, one of the leading mRNA players whose quick vault into the markets with a highly effective vaccine created an instant multibillion-dollar market, added his voice to the rising chorus early Tuesday. According to Bancel, there will be a significant drop in efficacy when the average immune system is confronted by Omicron. The only question now is: How much?

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Ap­peals court puts the fi­nal nail in the cof­fin for Tec­fidera patent, adding to Bio­gen's bur­geon­ing set­backs

In another setback for Biogen, the big biotech lost its appeal to revive a patent for the once-blockbuster drug Tecfidera, marking a likely conclusion to the case.

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued the ruling Tuesday morning, saying Biogen failed to satisfy the “written description” requirement for patent law. As a result, Mylan-turned-Viatris will be able to sell its multiple sclerosis generic without fear of infringement and Biogen will have to find a new revenue driver elsewhere.

Philip Dormitzer, new GSK global head of vaccines R&D

Glax­o­SmithK­line poach­es Pfiz­er's vi­ral vac­cines lead in rush to cap­i­tal­ize on fu­ture of mR­NA

GlaxoSmithKline has appointed Philip Dormitzer, formerly chief scientific officer of Pfizer’s viral vaccines unit, as its newest global head of vaccines R&D, looking to leverage one of the leading minds behind Pfizer and BioNTech’s RNA collaboration that led to Covid-19 jab Comirnaty, the British drug giant said Tuesday.

Dormitzer had been with Pfizer for a little more than six years, joining up after a seven-year stint with Novartis, where he reached the role of US head of research and head of global virology for the company’s vaccines and diagnostics unit.

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In­tro­duc­ing End­points Stu­dio, a new way to ad­ver­tise with End­points-craft­ed brand­ing cam­paigns

Since our start in 2016, Endpoints has grown fast while executing our mission to cover biopharma’s most critical developments for industry pros worldwide. As readership has grown, our advertising business has too. Endpoints advertising partners support the mission and engage their desired audiences through announcements on our email and web platforms, brand recognition in our event coverage and sponsorships of Endpoints daily and weekly reports.

Tillman Gerngross (Adagio)

Till­man Gern­gross on Omi­cron: 'It is a grim sit­u­a­tion...we’re go­ing to see a sig­nif­i­cant drop in vac­cine ef­fi­ca­cy'

Tillman Gerngross, the rarely shy Dartmouth professor, biotech entrepreneur and antibody expert, has been warning for over a year that the virus behind Covid-19 would likely continue to mutate, potentially in ways that avoid immunity from infection and the best defenses scientists developed. He spun out a company, Adagio, to build a universal antibody, one that could snuff out any potential mutation.

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In­cor­po­rat­ing Ex­ter­nal Da­ta in­to Clin­i­cal Tri­als: Com­par­ing Dig­i­tal Twins to Ex­ter­nal Con­trol Arms

Most drug development professionals are familiar with the nerve-racking wait for the read-out of a large trial. If it’s negative, is the investigational therapy ineffective? Or could the failure result from an unforeseen flaw in the design or execution of the protocol, rather than a lack of efficacy? The team could spend weeks analyzing data, but a definitive answer may be elusive due to insufficient power for such analyses in the already completed trial. These problems are only made worse if the trial had lower enrollment, or higher dropout than expected due to an unanticipated event like COVID-19. And if a trial is negative, the next one is likely to be larger and more costly — if it happens at all.

Mar­ket­ingRx roundup: Ab­b­Vie’s Hu­mi­ra TV turns fo­cus to HS skin con­di­tion; Sanofi amps par­ent­ing pol­i­cy

After years as the top spending pharma TV advertiser, AbbVie’s Humira brand finally downshifted earlier this year, ceding much of its marketing budget to up-and-coming sibling meds Skyrizi and Rinvoq. However, now Humira is back on TV with ads for another condition — Hidradenitis suppurativa (HS).

The chronic and painful skin condition results in lumps and abscesses caused by inflammation or infection of sweat glands, most often in the armpits or groin. Humira was first approved to treat HS in 2015 and remains the only FDA-approved drug for the condition. Two TV ads both note more than 30,000 people with HS have been prescribed Humira.

As lead drug runs in­to a wall, De­ci­phera slims down its pipeline, puts 140 jobs on the chop­ping block

Barely a month after disappointing data shattered hopes for a major label expansion for the GI tumor drug Qinlock, Deciphera is making a major pivot — scrapping development plans for that drug and discarding another while it hunkers down and focuses on two remaining drugs in the pipeline.

As a result, 140 of its staffers will be laid off.

The restructuring, which claims the equivalent of 35% of its total workforce, will take place across all departments including commercial, R&D as well as general and administrative support functions, Deciphera said, as it looks to streamline Qinlock-related commercial operations in the US while concentrating only on a “select number of key European markets.”

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