Mer­ck is scout­ing sites for a new re­search hub in the Bay Area, plans new hires

Mer­ck’s R&D re­or­ga­ni­za­tion in the U.S. in­cludes find­ing a new re­search hub in the Bay Area, with plans to add 100 more in­ves­ti­ga­tors as they beef up their ranks for new on­col­o­gy and car­dio pro­grams. And the phar­ma gi­ant even­tu­al­ly plans to con­sol­i­date all its R&D ef­forts in the re­gion in­to one cen­tral cam­pus.

A spokesper­son out­lined the plans to me af­ter The Dai­ly Jour­nal in The Penin­su­la quot­ed of­fi­cials in South San Fran­cis­co say­ing that Mer­ck was look­ing to es­tab­lish a cen­tral hub in the thriv­ing biotech hot spot. The city al­so hosts re­search groups from John­son and John­son, Pfiz­er and Roche, along with a host of small­er com­pa­nies.

“We will in­vest in a new re­search site in the San Fran­cis­co Bay area,” says the spokesper­son. “It will ini­tial­ly fo­cus on car­diometa­bol­ic dis­ease and on­col­o­gy dis­cov­ery. We an­tic­i­pate re­cruit­ing ap­prox­i­mate­ly 100 sci­en­tists. We are in the fi­nal stages of our search for a long-term lo­ca­tion, where we will ul­ti­mate­ly con­sol­i­date our On­col­o­gy, Im­muno-on­col­o­gy, Bi­o­log­ics and CMR dis­cov­ery work in­to a com­bined re­search site. Our Pa­lo Al­to site will con­tin­ue to fo­cus on Im­muno-On­col­o­gy and Bi­o­log­ics and Vac­cines dis­cov­ery un­til the long-term fa­cil­i­ty is up and run­ning.”

“They want to be co-lo­cat­ed with a large num­ber of com­pa­nies and like-mind­ed pro­fes­sion­als, where they can eas­i­ly share ideas and move seam­less­ly be­tween com­pa­nies and eas­i­ly form part­ner­ships,” City Man­ag­er Mike Futrell told the lo­cal pa­per.

A week ago Mer­ck pushed on with plans to re­duce staff lev­els at its op­er­a­tions in Ke­nil­worth and Rah­way, N.J. The move al­so af­fects its North Wales, Pa. screen­ing fa­cil­i­ty. Mer­ck has al­ready picked out a lab in Cam­bridge, MA for its ex­pand­ed work in the East Coast hub. Now it’s well along the way to do­ing the same on the West Coast.

Many of the top R&D groups in the world have been cen­tral­iz­ing their drug de­vel­op­ment ef­forts in the biggest hubs, look­ing to fa­cil­i­tate new deals and bet­ter con­nec­tions with top aca­d­e­m­ic in­sti­tu­tions. Boston and the Bay Area ac­count for the li­on’s share of the ven­ture cash be­ing in­vest­ed in U.S. biotechs.

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Jeff Albers, Blueprint CEO

Di­ag­nos­tic champ Roche buys its way in­to the RET ti­tle fight with Eli Lil­ly, pay­ing $775M in cash to Blue­print

When Roche spelled out its original $1 billion deal — $45 million of that upfront — with Blueprint to discover targeted therapies against immunokinases, the biotech partner’s RET program was still preclinical. Four years later, pralsetinib is on the cusp of potential approval and the Swiss pharma giant is putting in much more to get in on the commercial game.

Roche gains rights to co-develop and co-commercialize the drug, with sole marketing responsibility for places outside the US and China (where CStone has staked its claim).

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President Trump (left) and NIAID chief Anthony Fauci in the White House press room, April 22, 2020 (Michael Reynolds/Sipa via AP Images)

White House tries to dis­cred­it An­tho­ny Fau­ci — could he be on his way out?

For two months in late winter and early spring, Anthony Fauci and President Trump stood in uneasy co-existence at White House briefings — an unlikely truce between an infectious disease official who had helped combat AIDS and Ebola and a president who repeatedly denied the danger of a virus that would go on to kill 100,000 Americans, repeatedly rejected masks and certain social distancing efforts, and promoted a drug with little scientific basis.

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Stéphane Bancel, Moderna CEO (Andrew Harnik/AP Images)

A top an­a­lyst turns the spot­light on Mod­er­na, fu­el­ing a fast-and-fu­ri­ous Street race over the fu­ture of mR­NA

Bioregnum Opinion Column by John Carroll

Four months ago, one of the favorite talking points on the biopharma social media wave length was whether Moderna shares $MRNA were priced right or were wildly inflated.

After all, said the naysayers, the company had never actually pushed a treatment to an approval. Did messenger RNA really work, coding cells to make a drug or a vaccine? And how about all that chatter about how ‘secretive’ they are, or were?

Now, as CEO Stéphane Bancel and the top execs push the company to the forefront of a frantic race to develop the first vaccine to fight against the reignited wildfire spread of Covid-19, all those questions have been magnified — along with the stock price.

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En­gi­neer­ing an on/off switch for CAR-T out of yeast and Juras­sic Park

Almost as soon as CAR-T emerged in the mid-2010s as a near-cure for some cancers, so did a question: How do you give this without risking killing patients?

At the time, James Patterson was wrapping an MD-PhD at a yeast lab at London’s Francis Crick Institute. Yeast may seem an unlikely place to find a fix for cancer therapy, but reading through other researchers’ solutions to CAR-T’s toxicity, Patterson wondered if a method long used by yeast biologists called auxotrophy might be useful. You genetically modify cells to make them dependent on a particular nutrient. Then you can make them live or die — proliferate or deplete — by giving or taking away that nutrient.

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FDA re­jects Ver­ri­ca’s skin warts pitch, a month af­ter flag­ging ap­pli­ca­tion ‘de­fi­cien­cies’

Two years ago, Verrica Pharma landed a $75 million IPO on the promise they could develop the first ever-FDA approved drug for molluscum contagiosum, an infection that causes warts. Now that won’t happen, at least not this summer.

The FDA today rejected Verrica’s application to have their lead topical drug VP-102 approved for molluscum contagiosum. The news likely came as little surprise to Verrica or its investors; the biotech disclosed in late June that the FDA sent a letter saying “deficiencies” in their application precluded a discussion around labeling or post-marketing commitments.

Andrew Allen, Gritstone Oncology CEO

A neoanti­gen pi­o­neer says its tech is work­ing great. So what wrecked the share price?

Gritstone Oncology was one of the original neoantigen upstarts, raising cash and planning to disrupt the immuno-oncology field with a bold new approach to fighting cancer with a new brand of vaccines.

On Monday, the crew in charge ran out a full display of what they’ve been seeing in a Phase I study. And everything seems to be working perfectly with one big exception: It didn’t significantly shrink tumors, let alone eradicate them.

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Janet Woodcock, CDER chief (AP Images)

More Warp Speed con­tracts com­ing, vac­cine pro­duc­tion to be­gin in 4-6 weeks — of­fi­cials

Operation Warp Speed has already handed out 4 of what they once said would be 3-5 major contracts to develop Covid-19 vaccines, but administration officials indicated Monday that more would be on their way.

“The slate is not closed,”  a senior HHS official said on a call with reporters. “We’ve invested in four … but the slate is not closed.”

At the same time, the official indicated that Warp Speed would continue to focus on three technologies: mRNA, viral vectors and protein subunits. That leaves the door open for a wide range of platforms, notably including both of Merck’s vaccine candidates — one of which has already received BARDA funding — and one of Sanofi’s candidates. It appears to preclude, though, the potential for Inovio and Vaxart, among certain other small developers that have hyped their ties to the Trump administration, to be included.

Albert Bourla, AP

Covid-19 roundup: CanSi­no eyes more over­seas PhI­II sites as Cana­da tri­al re­port­ed­ly stalls; In­di­an drug­mak­er surges on 30-per­son da­ta

Having leveraged connections in Canada for a planned Phase III trial of its Covid-19 vaccine, CanSino is venturing out to a few more others as it plots a global late-stage program.

“We are contacting Russia, Brazil, Chile and Saudi Arabia, and it’s still in discussion,” Dongxu Qiu, executive director and co-founder of CanSino, said at a conference in Suzhou, China, per Reuters.

The trial is likely to start “pretty soon,” he added, with plans to recruit 40,000 participants total.

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