Mer­ck spin­out grabs some as­sets and launch­es a quest for the Holy Grail in an­tibi­otics R&D

Ter­ry Roe­mer

Ter­ry Roe­mer did a lot more than clean out his desk when he de­cid­ed to leave Mer­ck af­ter a 13-year ca­reer de­vel­op­ing an­ti­bod­ies at the phar­ma gi­ant. With R&D chief Roger Perl­mut­ter’s bless­ings, he al­so gath­ered some pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams to take with him that now form the pipeline at his new, up­start biotech based in Union, New Jer­sey. And he’s work­ing with a small team of ex-Mer­ck sci­en­tists ready to get things mov­ing to­ward the clin­ic.

Like the rest of the big phar­mas, Mer­ck has more R&D pro­grams than it can con­sume. And it had al­ready demon­strat­ed a lim­it­ed ap­petite for an­tibi­otics re­search af­ter bag­ging Cu­bist three years ago for $9.5 bil­lion, shut­ter­ing the ear­ly-stage work right af­ter the deal went through. So a spin­out — with a promised pay­back from mile­stones and roy­al­ties — makes good sense here for ac­cel­er­at­ing the de­vel­op­ment side of things.

Roe­mer’s new com­pa­ny is Prokary­otics, which has tak­en up res­i­dence at a New Jer­sey in­cu­ba­tor where he and his sci­en­tif­ic col­leagues have be­gun the busi­ness of de­vel­op­ing some lead as­sets that they be­lieve are the es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ents to an en­tire­ly nov­el an­tibi­ot­ic class that can con­quer the drug re­sis­tance that fre­quent­ly thwarts ex­ist­ing prod­ucts.

“To be hon­est,” Roe­mer tells me, “we have a ways to go. The pro­grams we in-li­censed are up to lead op­ti­miza­tion. De­pend­ing on the pro­gram, we have mul­ti­ple years ahead of us to get in­to the clin­ic. But I’m not too con­cerned about that.”

What he is con­cerned about: Com­ing up “with the next new an­tibi­otics class; a first-in-class agent. It’s a tremen­dous chal­lenge, there’s a lot in­volved.”

Roe­mer and his col­leagues at Mer­ck caused a stir in re­search cir­cles in the spring of 2016 with their pre­clin­i­cal work on a new ap­proach to de­feat­ing dead­ly, drug-hes­i­tant MR­SA. They iden­ti­fied small mol­e­cules — tarocins — that threw a mon­key wrench in­to the con­struc­tion of MR­SA cell walls, mak­ing them vul­ner­a­ble to the usu­al run of be­ta-lac­tam an­tibi­otics now in use. But Roe­mer stressed the team has broad am­bi­tions to go far be­yond the con­fines of tarocins and de­vel­op com­plete­ly new gram neg­a­tive pro­grams for the next gen­er­a­tion of be­ta-lac­tams.

Kei­th Bos­t­ian

Kei­th Bos­t­ian, an ex­pe­ri­enced biotech vet who set up the in­cu­ba­tor where Prokary­otics is based, is tak­ing the CEO spot in the com­pa­ny. He says that the plan now is to get start­ed with some non-di­lu­tive fund­ing, look­ing to a va­ri­ety of sources like BAR­DA and the Well­come Trust ea­ger to ex­tend sup­port to vet­er­an teams out to de­vel­op some break­through an­tibi­otics. Lat­er, he says, they can get in­volved in some more tra­di­tion­al fundrais­ing and al­liances.

Pub­lic health of­fi­cials have been rais­ing the alarm for years that drug-re­sis­tant su­per­bugs threat­en more and more peo­ple each year around the globe, but de­spite a num­ber of reg­u­la­to­ry in­cen­tives, much of the ear­ly-stage work re­mains in the hands of biotechs. R&D is chal­leng­ing in this field, it’s ex­pen­sive, and the mar­ket can still re­ly on some stan­dard reme­dies — in­clud­ing some in­cred­i­bly cheap ones — for most cas­es.

But as Prokary­otics con­tin­ues its work, Roe­mer and his team be­lieve that the de­mand for new an­tibi­otics can on­ly grow, putting him on the right course for right now.

Da­ta Lit­er­a­cy: The Foun­da­tion for Mod­ern Tri­al Ex­e­cu­tion

In 2016, the International Council for Harmonisation (ICH) updated their “Guidelines for Good Clinical Practice.” One key shift was a mandate to implement a risk-based quality management system throughout all stages of a clinical trial, and to take a systematic, prioritized, risk-based approach to clinical trial monitoring—on-site monitoring, remote monitoring, or any combination thereof.

Pfiz­er's big block­buster Xel­janz flunks its post-mar­ket­ing safe­ty study, re­new­ing harsh ques­tions for JAK class

When the FDA approved Pfizer’s JAK inhibitor Xeljanz for rheumatoid arthritis in 2012, they slapped on a black box warning for a laundry list of adverse events and required the New York drugmaker to run a long-term safety study.

That study has since become a consistent headache for Pfizer and their blockbuster molecule. Last year, Pfizer dropped the entire high dose cohort after an independent monitoring board found more patients died in that group than in the low dose arm or a control arm of patients who received one of two TNF inhibitors, Enbrel or Humira.

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Steve Harr (L) and Hans Bishop

One of the most am­bi­tious start­up teams in biotech just out­lined plans for a $400M IPO and a val­u­a­tion of about $4B

The executive team at Sana Biotechnology has sketched out more details about the full scope of its ambitions as the new unicorn to watch. They amended their S-1 today to include a price range of $20 to $23 a share — which puts them in reach of pulling in around $400 million on the high end with a market value starting right around $4 billion.

That’s not bad for a preclinical biotech with no drugs yet in human studies, but it squares with its ambitions to remake the cell therapy field with a slate of in-house platforms. The biotech raised $705 million — primarily from ARCH (44 million shares) and Flagship (34.2 million shares) — to get to this stage.

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Jude Samulski, AskBio

Bay­er and AskBio ex­pand grand gene ther­a­py am­bi­tions with new Parkin­son's pro­gram, top sci­en­tist

It only took 20 years, but Jude Samulski is finally turning AskBio into a gene therapy behemoth in the hills of North Carolina.

The now Bayer-owned biotech announced Friday they were bringing over the clinical team from Brain Neurotherapy Bio, completing a buyout announced in December and adding clinical programs in Parkinson’s and multiple system atrophy to an already large pipeline.

AskBio launched BrainNeuBio in 2018, a move consistent with Samulski’s long-running strategy of spinning out promising programs, which led to the Bamboo Therapeutics and Pfizer’s Duchenne Gene Therapy program, as well as a hemophilia program now owned by Takeda.

Delores Schendel, Medigene CEO (Vimeo via website)

Medi­gene cuts TCR-T ther­a­py in piv­ot to fo­cus on sol­id tu­mors

It’s been several months since Medigene AG laid out plans to devote itself to solid tumors. In keeping with that promise, the German biotech said Thursday that it’s cutting an early-stage TCR-T therapy for relapsed or refractory blood cancer patients — after researchers blamed the pandemic in part for their failure to dose any patients in the first seven months of a Phase I trial.

The candidate, MDG1021, was licensed from the Leiden University Medical Center at the end of 2018, about a year after Medigene out-licensed its AAV-like particle tech to focus on T cells and immunotherapy. It targets a specific, immunogenic form of the antigen HA-1, which is expressed on cells of the hematopoietic system. The idea is that if the patient’s blood cells, — and thus lymphoma or leukemic cells — carry the immunogenic version of the HA-1 antigen and the donor stem cells do not, MDG1021 TCR-T cells would fight the patient’s cancer cells while allowing the donor cells to repopulate the patient’s blood forming system.

Glax­o­SmithK­line moves malar­ia vac­cine pro­duc­tion to In­dia; Nevakar bags Eu­ro­pean part­ner and nine-fig­ure deal

GSK is shifting production of its malaria vaccine to a Covid-19 vaccine developer in India.

Wednesday’s move to Bharat Biotech was made as part of efforts to battle the deadly fever, as GSK’s vaccine is the first to prove effective in combating the disease. Bharat will take over manufacturing of the protein part of the vaccine while GSK continues developing the adjuvant portion of the shot.

The vaccine is currently being piloted in regions of Ghana, Kenya and Malawi under the Malaria Vaccine Implementation Program. More than 500,000 children have received the first dose since the pilots were initiated by the three countries in 2019.

Covid-19 roundup: EU and As­traZeneca trade blows over slow­downs; Un­usu­al unions pop up to test an­ti­bod­ies, vac­cines

After coming under fire for manufacturing delays last week, AstraZeneca’s feud with the European Union has spilled into the open.

The bloc accused the pharma giant on Wednesday of pulling out of a meeting to discuss cuts to its vaccine supplies, the AP reported. AstraZeneca denied the reports, saying it still planned on attending the discussion.

Early Wednesday, an EU Commission spokeswoman said that “the representative of AstraZeneca had announced this morning, had informed us this morning that their participation is not confirmed, is not happening.” But an AstraZeneca spokesperson later called the reports “not accurate.”

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Lil­ly at­tempts to re­vive an old idea for tack­ling pain, li­cens­ing PhI pro­gram from Japan’s Asahi Ka­sei Phar­ma

Eli Lilly is fronting some new cash in a space they’re quite familiar with.

The company is partnering with Japan’s Asahi Kasei Pharma on an experimental drug for chronic pain, acquiring the rights for the P2X7 receptor antagonist program dubbed AK1780. Lilly will shell out a pretty penny for the program, promising up to $410 million total should each milestone payment come to pass.

Asahi Kasei will receive an upfront sum of $20 million for the candidate. In addition, Lilly is on the hook for up to $210 million in development and regulatory milestones and another potential $180 million in sales milestones. Asahi Kasei can also obtain royalties ranging from the mid-single to low-double digits should an approved product come out of the deal.

Ther­mo Fish­er plat­form seeks to ex­pe­dite donor cell cul­ti­va­tion for al­lo­gene­ic cell ther­a­pies

One of the world’s leading CDMOs has launched a new technology it says will expedite a quickly-growing sect of biotech drug development: off-the-shelf, allogeneic cell therapies.

It’s been nearly a decade since the FDA approved the first use of the method that uses healthy donor cells to create a master cell bank, which is then used for specific therapies — a cord blood allogeneic treatment called Hemacord. In the years since, the use of allogeneic cells has taken off in research circles, most notably in the use of T cell therapies to target solid tumor cancers.