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.

Biotech and Big Phar­ma: A blue­print for a suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship

Strategic partnerships have long been an important contributor to how drugs are discovered and developed. For decades, big pharma companies have been forming alliances with biotech innovators to increase R&D productivity, expand geographical reach and better manage late-stage commercialization costs.

Noël Brown, Managing Director and Head of Biotechnology Investment Banking, and Greg Wiederrecht, Ph.D., Managing Director in the Global Healthcare Investment Banking Group at RBC Capital Markets, are no strangers to the importance of these tie-ups. Noël has over 20 years of investment banking experience in the industry. Before moving to the banking world in 2015, Greg was the Vice President and Head of External Scientific Affairs (ESA) at Merck, where he was responsible for the scientific assessment of strategic partnership opportunities worldwide.

No­var­tis' sec­ond at­tempt to repli­cate a stun­ning can­cer re­sult falls flat

Novartis’ hopes of turning one of the most surprising trial data points of the last decade into a lung cancer drug has taken another setback.

The Swiss pharma announced Monday that its IL-1 inhibitor canakinumab did not significantly extend the lives or slow the disease progression of patients with previously untreated locally advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer when compared to standard of-care alone.

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Robert Califf (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP Images, File)

As buzz on Califf FDA nom heats up, in­dus­try and agency in­sid­ers of­fer a strong nod for the ‘per­fect’ choice

For once in this long, dramatic road to finding a new FDA commissioner, there’s been some continuity. Both CNN and Politico reported this weekend that Rob Califf met with President Biden to discuss the permanent commish role, following earlier news broken by the Washington Post that all signs point to Califf.

Although there may be a few Democrats who continue to grandstand about the dangers of COI (Califf has worked for Verily, sits on the board of Centessa Pharmaceuticals, and has other ties to industry research), with the pandemic ongoing and the need for some kind of continuity at FDA mounting, Califf is likely to meet the same fate as when he first won Senate confirmation in 2016, by a vote of 89-4 — Bernie Sanders and 6 others didn’t vote.

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AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot (Raphael Lafargue/Abaca/Sipa USA)

A com­bo of As­traZeneca's Imfinzi and chemo wins where oth­ers have failed in piv­otal bil­iary tract test

Looking to run with the big dogs in the PD-(L)1 class, AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi has a tall hill to climb to compete in an increasingly bustling market. An aggressive combo strategy for the drug has paid off so far, and now AstraZeneca is adding another notch to its belt.

A combo of Imfinzi (durvalumab) and chemotherapy significantly extended the lives of first-line patients with advanced biliary tract cancer over chemo alone, according to topline results from the Phase III TOPAZ-1 study revealed Monday.

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Sean Ianchulev, Eyenovia CEO and CMO

Re­cent court de­ci­sion push­es FDA to re­ject and re­clas­si­fy drug-de­vice com­bo, crush­ing shares

Back in April, the FDA lost a crucial court case in which its broad discretion of regulating medical products that might satisfy the legal definitions of either “drug” and/or “medical device” was sharply curtailed.

In addition to the appeals court ruling that Genus Medical Technologies’ contrast agent barium sulfate (aka Vanilla SilQ) should not be considered a drug, as the FDA had initially ruled, but as a medical device, the agency also was forced to spell out which drugs would transition to devices as a result of the ruling.

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Peter Greenleaf, Aurinia CEO

Af­ter pass­ing on Ac­celeron, Bris­tol My­ers eyes bolt-on ac­qui­si­tion of au­toim­mune spe­cial­ist — re­port

Bristol Myers Squibb is looking to beef up its autoimmune portfolio by scooping up Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, Bloomberg reported.

The recent overtures to Aurinia, relayed by anonymous insiders, came just as Bristol Myers turned down buyout talks with partners at Acceleron — which Merck ultimately struck a deal to acquire for $11.5 billion. Bristol Myers has reportedly decided to cash out on its minority stake, likely bagging $1.3 billion in the process, while keeping the royalty deals on two of Acceleron’s blood disorder drugs.

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So — that pig-to-hu­man trans­plant; Po­ten­tial di­a­betes cure reach­es pa­tient; Ac­cused MIT sci­en­tist lash­es back; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

We’re incredibly excited to welcome Beth Bulik, seasoned pharma marketing reporter, to the team. You can find much of her work in our new Marketing channel — and in her weekly newsletter, Endpoints PharmaRx, which will launch in early November. Add it to your subscriptions here.

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NYU surgeon transplants an engineered pig kidney into the outside of a brain-dead patient (Joe Carrotta/NYU Langone Health)

No, sci­en­tists are not any clos­er to pig-to-hu­man trans­plants than they were last week

Steve Holtzman was awoken by a 1 a.m. call from a doctor at Duke University asking if he could put some pigs on a plane and fly them from Ohio to North Carolina that day. A motorcyclist had gotten into a horrific crash, the doctor explained. He believed the pigs’ livers, sutured onto the patient’s skin like an external filter, might be able to tide the young man over until a donor liver became available.

UP­DAT­ED: Agenus calls out FDA for play­ing fa­vorites with Mer­ck, pulls cer­vi­cal can­cer BLA at agen­cy's re­quest

While criticizing the FDA for what may be some favoritism towards Merck, Agenus on Friday officially pulled its accelerated BLA for its anti-PD-1 inhibitor balstilimab as a potential second-line treatment for cervical cancer because of the recent full approval for Merck’s Keytruda in the same indication.

The company said the BLA, which was due for an FDA decision by Dec. 16, was withdrawn “when the window for accelerated approval of balstilimab closed,” thanks to the conversion of Keytruda’s accelerated approval to a full approval four months prior to its PDUFA date.

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