Months away from com­plet­ing a key sick­le cell tri­al, up­start Imara scores $63M in round co-led by Ar­ix, Or­bimed

A Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts-based sick­le cell dis­ease start­up that launched about three years ago has sparked the in­ter­est of UK life sci­ences com­pa­ny Ar­ix, which has agreed to co-lead a $63 mil­lion round of fi­nanc­ing for the drug de­vel­op­er Imara a few months ahead of the com­ple­tion of a key Phase II study.

Rahul Bal­lal

Imara burst in­to the biotech zeit­geist in June 2016 — as a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween or­phan drug ac­cel­er­a­tor Cy­dan De­vel­op­ment and Lund­beck — with $31 mil­lion in Se­ries A fund­ing from a slew of in­vestors, in­clud­ing New En­ter­prise As­so­ci­ates and Pfiz­er Ven­ture In­vest­ments. Since then it has en­list­ed the ser­vices of Rahul Bal­lal — who is tap­ping his busi­ness de­vel­op­ment ex­pe­ri­ence at North­ern Bi­o­log­ics and Flex­ion Ther­a­peu­tics and his VC chops from Ver­sant Ven­tures and No­var­tis Ven­ture Fund — in his role as CEO.

Imara is fo­cused on its sole ex­per­i­men­tal drug, IMR-687, for sick­le cell dis­ease (SCD) — a group of in­her­it­ed red blood cell dis­or­ders that large­ly af­flict those of African an­ces­try. SCD pa­tients have atyp­i­cal he­mo­glo­bin mol­e­cules, which can dis­tort red blood cells in­to a sick­le, or cres­cent, shape. Symp­toms such as ane­mia, re­peat­ed in­fec­tions and pe­ri­od­ic episodes of sear­ing pain be­gin to ap­pear in ear­ly child­hood. These episodes de­prive the body of oxy­gen-rich blood, which can cul­mi­nate in wide­spread tis­sue and or­gan dam­age, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the lungs, kid­neys, spleen, heart and brain, and dras­ti­cal­ly di­min­ish life ex­pectan­cy.

IMR-687 — an in­hibitor of phos­pho­di­esterase-9 (PDE9i) in blood cells — is de­signed to to treat the un­der­ly­ing caus­es of SCD by tar­get­ing the same bio­chem­i­cal path­way as stan­dard sick­le cell treat­ment (and chemother­a­peu­tic agent) hy­drox­yurea, but sans its safe­ty is­sues. Hy­drox­yurea makes the red blood cells big­ger, help­ing them stay rounder and more flex­i­ble — and makes them less like­ly to turn in­to a sick­le shape. In an­i­mal mod­els, IMR-687 has been shown to in­crease fe­tal glo­bin, sub­vert­ing the poly­mer­iza­tion of the sick­led he­mo­glo­bin — there­by re­duc­ing red blood cell sick­ling, red blood cell death and the oc­clu­sion of blood ves­sels. PDE9 in­hi­bi­tion al­so di­min­ish­es white blood cell “stick­i­ness” which fur­ther lessens the block­age of blood ves­sels, Imara said.

The drug is cur­rent­ly be­ing test­ed in a mid-stage study, which is ex­pect­ed to be con­clud­ed by June. Ini­tial da­ta is ex­pect­ed by the sec­ond half of this year, and the full read­out in the first quar­ter of 2020, an Ar­ix spokesper­son told End­points News.

Oth­er than hy­drox­yurea — which has been used for decades for sick­le cell — Em­maus Med­ical’s En­dari was ap­proved in 2017 for adult and pe­di­atric pa­tients to re­duce the acute com­pli­ca­tions of sick­le cell dis­ease. Oth­er de­vel­op­ers, in­clud­ing No­var­tis $NVS, Glob­al Blood Ther­a­peu­tics $GBT, CRISPR Ther­a­peu­tics $CR­SP/Ver­tex $VRTX and blue­bird bio $BLUE (whose gene ther­a­py-in-de­vel­op­ment gar­nered a flur­ry of at­ten­tion in a re­cent 60 min­utes episode) are al­so de­vel­op­ing drugs for the or­phan dis­ease that af­fects an es­ti­mat­ed 100,000 Amer­i­cans.

Mark Chin

The Se­ries B round for Imara was co-led by new in­vestors Ar­ix and Or­bimed Ad­vi­sors, and in­clud­ed the par­tic­i­pa­tion of RA Cap­i­tal and Rock Springs Cap­i­tal, as well as ex­ist­ing in­vestors NEA, Pfiz­er Ven­tures, Bay City Cap­i­tal, Lund­beck­fonden Ven­tures and Alexan­dria Ven­ture In­vest­ments. The in­jec­tion will be used for clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment for the sick­le cell pro­gram, as well as broad­er ap­pli­ca­tions in be­ta tha­lassemia and oth­er haema­to­log­i­cal con­di­tions.

As part of the fi­nanc­ing, Ar­ix has com­mit­ted to in­vest $15 mil­lion for a 10% stake in Imara and Ar­ix’s in­vest­ment di­rec­tor Mark Chin will join Imara’s board, it said on Mon­day.

Con­quer­ing a silent killer: HDV and Eiger Bio­Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals

Hepatitis delta, also known as hepatitis D, is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis delta virus (HDV) that results in the most severe form of human viral hepatitis for which there is no approved therapy.

HDV is a single-stranded, circular RNA virus that requires the envelope protein (HBsAg) of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) for its own assembly. As a result, hepatitis delta virus (HDV) infection occurs only as a co-infection in individuals infected with HBV. However, HDV/HBV co-infections lead to more serious liver disease than HBV infection alone. HDV is associated with faster progression to liver fibrosis (progressing to cirrhosis in about 80% of individuals in 5-10 years), increased risk of liver cancer, and early decompensated cirrhosis and liver failure.
HDV is the most severe form of viral hepatitis with no approved treatment.
Approved nucleos(t)ide treatments for HBV only suppress HBV DNA, do not appreciably impact HBsAg and have no impact on HDV. Investigational agents in development for HBV target multiple new mechanisms. Aspirations are high, but a functional cure for HBV has not been achieved nor is one anticipated in the forseeable future. Without clearance of HBsAg, anti-HBV investigational treatments are not expected to impact the deadly course of HDV infection anytime soon.

No­var­tis is ax­ing 150 ear­ly dis­cov­ery jobs as CNI­BR shifts fo­cus to the de­vel­op­ment side of R&D

Novartis is axing some 150 early discover jobs in Shanghai as it swells its staff on the drug development side of the equation in China. And the company is concurrently beefing up its investment in China’s fast-growing biotech sector with a plan to add to its investments in local VCs.

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No­var­tis is eye­ing a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar Med­Co buy­out as Jer­sey biotech nears NDA — re­ports

To get from Novartis’ US headquarters to the Medicines Company, you make a left out of a square concrete building on NJ-Route 10, follow it past the sun orange veranda of Jersey’s Hot Bagels and the inexplicable green Vermont cabin that houses the Whippany Railway Museum until you turn right and immediately arrive at a rectangular glass building. It should take you about 12 minutes.

Reports are out that Novartis may be making that trip. Amid a torrent of Phase III data burnishing MedCo’s chances at a blockbuster cholesterol drug,  Bloomberg News is reporting that Novartis is looking to acquire the Jersey-based biotech.

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UP­DAT­ED: In a land­mark first glimpse of hu­man da­ta from Ver­tex, CRISPR/Cas9 gene ther­a­py sig­nals ear­ly ben­e­fit

Preliminary data on two patients with blood disorders that have been administered with Vertex and partner CRISPR Therapeutics’ gene-editing therapy suggest the technology is safe and effective, marking the first instance of the benefit of the use of CRISPR/Cas9 technology in humans suffering from disease.

Patients in these phase I/II studies give up peripheral blood from which hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells are isolated. The cells are tinkered with using CRISPR/Cas9 technology, and the edited cells — CTX001 — are infused back into the patient via a stem cell transplant. The objective of CTX001 is to fix the errant hemoglobin gene in patents with two blood disorders: beta-thalassemia and sickle cell disease, by unleashing the production of fetal hemoglobin.

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Badrul Chowdhury. FDA via Flickr

As­traZeneca los­es an­oth­er ex­ec­u­tive to biotech, as Badrul Chowd­hury moves to Savara

Another executive is migrating from the echelons of Big Pharma to the corridors of small biotech.

In April 2018, Badrul Chowdhury took his more than two decades of experience at the FDA to AstraZeneca, where he took on the role of senior vice president and chief physician-scientist for respiratory, inflammation and autoimmunity late-stage development in biopharmaceuticals R&D.

After about a year and a half in this role, Chowdhury is moving to a small Texas biotech called Savara, where he will serve as chief medical officer.

Yiannis Kiachopoulos and Artur Saudabayev, co-founders of Causaly

Lon­don AI up­start, which counts No­var­tis as a cus­tomer, can teach your com­put­er to read

When Amazon developed a machine-learning tool to make its recruitment process more efficient — the man-made system absorbed the gender-bias of its human makers, and the project was aborted. In the field of biopharmaceuticals, the way researchers train their machine learning algorithms can skew the outcome of predictions. But before those predictions can be made, the engine must learn to read to make sense of explosive volume of knowledge out there.

Burt Adelman. Novo Ventures

Here's a $25M seed fund aimed at back­ing some brash new drug ideas out of the Broad

As a former academic and a seasoned drug developer, Burt Adelman knew when he was recruited as a senior advisor to Novo Ventures in 2017 that one of his key priorities needs to be introducing the fund to the network he was so deeply embedded in.

“I was thinking long and hard on how can I, as a Boston insider, help Novo really get inside the ecosystem of Boston biotech?” he recalled in an interview with Endpoints News.

Welling­ton lines up a $393M bankroll for its next round of pri­vate biotech bets — and they’re like­ly think­ing big

Wellington Management made some uncustomary waves at the beginning of the year when it threw its considerable weight against Bristol-Myers Squibb’s $74 billion Celgene buyout. But after Bristol-Myers’ biggest investor conceded that game to the influential proxy firms involved, they’re now going to end the year by rolling out a big new investment fund for a new stable of fledgling biotechs on the private side of the industry.

As uter­ine race with Ab­b­Vie heats up, My­ovant eyes FDA ap­proval with tri­al re­sults from prostate can­cer

Myovant has long had a secret weapon in its uterine rivalry with AbbVie: Men.

While the small Swiss biotech has jockeyed with the Illinois-based giant for a foothold in the endometriosis and uterine fibroid therapy market, the company has been developing the same lead compound, relugolix, for use in one of the most common cancers for the uterus-less: prostate cancer. Today, Myovant is out with positive topline results from its big Phase III trial on the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) antagonist. They say they’ve reached every primary and secondary endpoint with p values less than .0001.