Months af­ter $10M Se­ries A, rare dis­ease AI up­start Healx hauls in $56M in fresh fund­ing

In 2010, Nick Sireau quit his job to fo­cus sole­ly on the pa­tient group he had set up to help his sons di­ag­nosed with a rare ge­net­ic dis­ease called alka­p­tonuria (AKU). Re­searchers had found a fea­si­ble treat­ment from an un­like­ly source: a weed­killer, but it was be­ing used to help in­fants with a dif­fer­ent dis­or­der. Sireau would then con­front the per­ils of the tra­di­tion­al tri­al-and-er­ror drug dis­cov­ery process that de­mands time and mon­ey.

Tim Guil­liams

In 2014, two sci­en­tists met Sireau, who had been fierce­ly lob­by­ing and fundrais­ing to get UK au­thor­i­ties to tri­al the com­pound in pa­tients with AKU. The en­counter sparked the two re­searchers — the British sci­en­tist be­hind Vi­a­gra, David Brown, and a bio­engi­neer from Cam­bridge, Tim Guil­liams — to work on mar­ry­ing the con­cept of drug re­pur­pos­ing with AI and ma­chine learn­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly for rare con­di­tions. Soon, their com­pa­ny — Healx — was born.

This Ju­ly, the Cam­bridge, UK-based com­pa­ny raised $10 mil­lion in a Se­ries A round of fund­ing. On Wednes­day, Healx un­veiled a fresh $56 mil­lion in­jec­tion — as it preps for a Phase IIa clin­i­cal tri­al ex­pect­ed to ini­ti­ate in the first quar­ter of 2020 — in pa­tients with Frag­ile X syn­drome, a con­di­tion that spawns de­vel­op­men­tal prob­lems and is con­sid­ered the lead­ing ge­net­ic cause of autism.

Nick Sireau

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The tri­al will eval­u­ate the safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy of a com­bi­na­tion ther­a­py, Guil­liams told End­points News, de­clin­ing to pro­vide fur­ther de­tail.

“If you look at com­bi­na­tions of two or three drugs, you have about 13 bil­lion pos­si­bil­i­ties per dis­ease — so how do you se­lect the top 10, the top 20? And we don’t go be­yond that,” Guil­liams said. Healx’s AI plat­form claims to short­en the dis­cov­ery-to-clin­ic time­line to as lit­tle as 24 months.

David Brown

Healx’s ap­proach does not lean on an ini­tial hy­poth­e­sis. “We let the al­go­rithm de­cide which dis­eases we’re go­ing to work on, which drugs are be­ing matched. And then we work out a mech­a­nism or hy­poth­e­sis af­ter­wards,” he said.

So far, Healx has launched 10 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams across a pletho­ra of in­di­ca­tions — of which four (in­clud­ing the Frag­ile X pro­gram) have reaped re­sults so far, Guil­liams said, not­ing that each of these read­outs has been pos­i­tive. With this Se­ries B, the plan is to launch an­oth­er 40 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams, he added.

If they are suc­cess­ful — with any of these shots on goal — the plan is to make sure pric­ing is not in the typ­i­cal or­phan drug price range which hov­ers around $240,000 per pa­tient per year, Guil­liams said.

Re­pur­pos­ing drugs on pur­pose (or by ac­ci­dent) has yield­ed some suc­cess — that the process in­volves large­ly de-risked com­pounds, low­er de­vel­op­men­tal costs, and briefer time­lines doesn’t hurt ei­ther.

Vi­a­gra is, of course, the most heav­i­ly cit­ed ex­am­ple. The drug, known chem­i­cal­ly as silde­nafil, was orig­i­nal­ly be­ing test­ed as a treat­ment for coro­nary hy­per­ten­sion — but a pesky side ef­fect felt by pa­tients in tri­als led to its even­tu­al ap­proval as an erec­tile dys­func­tion drug.

Then there’s the seda­tive thalido­mide — which gained no­to­ri­ety af­ter its link to se­vere skele­tal birth de­fects trig­gered its with­draw­al in 1957. How­ev­er, years lat­er it was deemed ef­fec­tive as a can­cer treat­ment, even breed­ing the de­vel­op­ment and ap­proval of even more suc­cess­ful de­riv­a­tives, such as Cel­gene’s block­buster Revlim­id.

Mean­while, Mer­ck’s Vioxx — which was un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly tak­en off shelves af­ter its link to dou­bling pa­tients’ risk of heart at­tack and stroke emerged — could resur­face as a gener­ic treat­ment for a side ef­fect ex­pe­ri­enced by he­mo­phil­ia pa­tients. The gener­ic ver­sion is be­ing prepped for a piv­otal tri­al slat­ed to be­gin next year.

But akin to tra­di­tion­al drug de­vel­op­ment, drug re­pur­pos­ing has al­so seen its share of set­backs. Two ex­am­ples of late-stage fail­ures in­clude the bid to use the an­ti­his­t­a­mine, la­trepir­dine, as a treat­ment for Hunt­ing­ton’s dis­ease, as well as the pur­suit of re­pur­pos­ing the an­tibi­ot­ic, cef­tri­ax­one, as a med­i­cine for ALS.

Healx’s Se­ries B was led by Eu­ro­pean VC firm Atom­i­co and joined by Glob­al Brain and btov Part­ners. All pre­vi­ous in­vestors, in­clud­ing Balder­ton Cap­i­tal, Amadeus Cap­i­tal Part­ners and Jonathan Mil­ner, al­so par­tic­i­pat­ed in the round.

Healx did not ini­tial­ly plan to raise more mon­ey this year, but in­ter­est in their ap­proach bal­looned giv­en their progress, Guil­liams said. “I think that’s a re­al­ly good sign for the in­vest­ment land­scape in the UK and Eu­rope be­cause for Eu­rope it’s a pret­ty large B round…com­pared to the US.”

“And I’m won­der­ing if part of that is let’s make sure we in­vest be­fore Brex­it kicks in.”

A New Fron­tier: The In­ner Ear

What happens when a successful biotech venture capitalist is unexpectedly diagnosed with a chronic, life-disrupting vertigo disorder? Innovation in neurotology.

That venture capitalist was Jay Lichter, Ph.D., and after learning there was no FDA-approved drug treatment for his condition, Ménière’s disease, he decided to create a company to bring drug development to neurotology. Otonomy was founded in 2008 and is dedicated to finding new drug treatments for the hugely underserved community living with balance and hearing disorders. Helping patients like Jay has been the driving force behind Otonomy, a company heading into a transformative 2020 with three clinical trial readouts: Phase 3 in Ménière’s disease, Phase 2 in tinnitus, and Phase 1/2 in hearing loss. These catalysts, together with others in the field, highlight the emerging opportunity in neurotology.
Otonomy is leading the way in neurotology
Neurotology, or the treatment of inner ear neurological disorders, is a large and untapped market for drug developers: one in eight individuals in the U.S. have moderate-to-severe hearing loss, tinnitus or vertigo disorders such as Ménière’s disease.1 With no FDA-approved drug treatments available for these conditions, the burden on patients—including social anxiety, lower quality of life, reduced work productivity, and higher rates of depression—can be significant.2, 3, 4

Joe Jimenez, Getty

Ex-No­var­tis CEO Joe Jimenez is tak­ing an­oth­er crack at open­ing a new chap­ter in his ca­reer — and that in­cludes a new board seat and a $250M start­up

Joe Jimenez is back.

The ex-CEO of Novartis has taken a board seat on Century Therapeutics, the Versant and Bayer-backed startup focused on coming up with a brand new twist on cell therapies for cancer — a field where Jimenez made his mark backing the first personalized CAR-T approved for use.

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Can we make the an­tibi­ot­ic mar­ket great again?

The standard for-profit model in drug development is straightforward. Spend millions, even billions, to develop a medicine from scratch. The return on investment (and ideally a tidy profit) comes via volume and/or price, depending on the disease. But the string of big pharma exits and slew of biotech bankruptcies indicate that the model is sorely flawed when it comes to antibiotics.

The industry players contributing to the arsenal of antimicrobials are fast dwindling, and the pipeline for new antibiotics is embarrassingly sparse, the WHO has warned. Drugmakers are enticed by greener pastures, compared to the long, arduous and expensive path to antibiotic approval that offers little financial gain as treatments are typically priced cheaply, and often lose potency over time as microbes grow resistant to them.

Eye­ing a trio of tri­al ini­ti­a­tions, Jim Wilson's gene ther­a­py start­up woos Bruce Gold­smith from Deer­field as CEO

Passage Bio — Jim Wilson’s self-described “legacy company” — has wooed a seasoned biotech executive to steer the clinical entry of its first three gene therapy programs.

Bruce Goldsmith jumps to the helm of Passage after a brief CEO stint at Civetta, a cancer-focused startup he helped launch while a venture partner at Deerfield. He takes over from OrbiMed partner and interim chief Stephen Squinto, who will now lead the R&D team.

Amber Saltzman (Ohana)

Flag­ship's first ven­ture of 2020 is out, and it's all about sperm

A couple years ago, Amber Salzman got a call as she was returning East full-time after a two-year stint running a gene therapy company in California.

It was from someone at Flagship Pioneering, the deep-pocketed biotech venture firm. They had a new company with a new way of thinking about sperm. It had been incubating for over a year, and now they wanted her to run it.

“It exactly fit,” Salzman told Endpoints News. “I just thought I had to do something.”

Pfiz­er ax­es 6 ear­ly to late-stage can­cer stud­ies from the pipeline — with one oth­er cut for sick­le cell dis­ease

Pfizer trimmed a group of 3 R&D programs using their PD-L1 Bavencio — partnered with Merck KGaA — in their latest pipeline cull.

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UP­DAT­ED: In­cyte scores much need­ed PhI­II suc­cess — and of course it’s de­liv­ered by rux­oli­tinib

Incyte’s efforts to breathe a second life into ruxolitinib — its JAK inhibitor sold in pill form as Jakafi — has been greeted with clear, if preliminary and unsurprising, Phase III success.

Topline data from the TRuE-AD2 cements ruxolitinib’s foundational importance for Incyte, and gives analysts hope that there might yet be room for growth in a pipeline that’s suffered multiple R&D setbacks.

Stephen Hahn, AP

The FDA un­veils a new reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work to speed along gene ther­a­pies, re­ward­ing the lead­ing play­ers

Bioregnum Opinion Column by John Carroll

The emphasis at the FDA over the past 5 years or so has been on assisting drug developers as much as they can to speed up regulatory reviews and push more drugs into the market. And they are now crafting a final set of regulations aimed at flagging through a whole new generation of gene therapies in clinical testing at a rapid clip.

In a set of 6 prospective guidances posted on the FDA web site Tuesday morning, FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn committed the agency to staying flexible in handing out designations that are critical to gaining early approvals for drugs that claim to be once-and-done but don’t have anything close to the data needed to prove it.

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Mike Bloomberg (AP IMAGES)

Mike Bloomberg joins a grow­ing cho­rus of De­mo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates threat­en­ing to go af­ter drug patents

As the mayor of New York City, Mike Bloomberg had a few modest ideas about lowering prescription drug prices in the Big Apple that gained little traction. Now on the campaign trail on a faint hope of clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, the billionaire has some bigger plans — including one that would alter the patent system central to the biopharma business.

In a barebones drug pricing plan posted on Monday, Bloomberg came out blasting President Donald Trump for failing to deliver his promise to lower drug prices, and then making misleading claims about them. The price of over 3,000 drugs still increased at a rate five times higher than inflation in the first six months of 2019, he wrote.