Dan Hicklin (File photo)

MPM and Long­wood-backed Were­wolf Ther­a­peu­tics grabs $56 mil­lion to take tu­mors by night

Backed with the team from his last com­pa­ny, one of the key de­vel­op­ers be­hind Keytru­da has a new warch­est in the race to bring im­munother­a­py in­to the tu­mor mi­cro-en­vi­ron­ment.

Dan Hick­lin, who over­saw Mer­ck’s I/O port­fo­lio and helped de­vel­op sev­er­al oth­er can­cer drugs, is the founder and pres­i­dent of Were­wolf Ther­a­peu­tics, a com­pa­ny that aims to “shapeshift” its way in­to tu­mors and tear them apart from with­in. With the ex­cep­tion of the COO, its lead­er­ship is en­tire­ly seed­ed from Poten­za Ther­a­peu­tics, the an­ti­body com­pa­ny Hick­lin sold to Astel­las for $165 mil­lion up­front last De­cem­ber. They’ll even use the same lab space.

Were­wolf is backed with $56 mil­lion in Se­ries A fund­ing led by MPM Cap­i­tal and Long­wood and joined by Tai­ho Ven­tures, Arkin Bio Ven­tures, DC In­vest­ment Part­ners and UPMC.

“It was a lit­tle bit of a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge, at least for me,” Hick­lin told End­points News. “It’s quite a bit of a dif­fer­ence from check­point ther­a­py.”

Be­yond the YA nov­el brand­ing, Were­wolf has a seem­ing­ly el­e­gant ap­proach to the prob­lems that have vexed re­searchers try­ing to turn the im­mune sys­tem on tu­mor mi­croen­vi­ron­ments. They use what they call their “PREDA­TOR” plat­form to send com­pounds that on­ly trig­ger an im­mune re­sponse once they en­ter the tu­mor mi­croen­vi­ron­ment.

Past com­pa­ny state­ments have com­pared this process to a were­wolf on­ly trans­form­ing in the light of the full moon, but you can prob­a­bly just think of it as act­ing like those kids toys that change col­or in wa­ter.

Mi­croen­vi­ron­ments are par­tic­u­lar­ly im­por­tant in ad­dress­ing sol­id tu­mors, where Were­wolf is fo­cus­ing its ef­forts. These spaces are of­ten im­muno­sup­pres­sive and have been re­sis­tant to the check­point in­hibitors that have dom­i­nat­ed I/O to date. Oth­er biotechs, such as Ed­i­tas or Gam­maDelta, have worked on us­ing par­tic­u­lar im­mune cells, such as gam­ma delta cells or nat­ur­al killer cells to get in­side.

Were­wolf is less than forth­com­ing about what will be at­tached to the plat­form or ex­act­ly how it’ll work with­in tu­mors, say­ing on­ly they will use pro-in­flam­ma­to­ry cy­tokines and cos­tim­u­la­to­ry re­cep­tor ag­o­nists.

The prob­lem with these agents to date, Hick­lin said, is that they can send the im­mune sys­tem in­to dan­ger­ous over­drive.

The body should have im­mune home­osta­sis. Check­points on tu­mor cells put ar­ti­fi­cial brakes on the sys­tem by bind­ing to T cells, and check­point in­hibitors such as Keytru­da pre­vent the tu­mor cells from bind­ing and putting on those brakes.  Were­wolf and oth­er com­pa­nys’ mi­croen­vi­ron­ment agents such as IL-2 throw the nor­mal im­mune sys­tem in­to over­drive. But if they in­crease the im­mune re­sponse out­side the tu­mor too much, they can cause im­mune cells to dam­age healthy tis­sue.

“These are the ac­cel­er­a­tors rather than the brakes,” Hick­lin said, turn­ing to­wards an in­creas­ing­ly com­mon anal­o­gy.

Hick­lin said Were­wolf will se­lect two lead can­di­dates over the next 6 months and hope­ful­ly aim for the clin­ic. It could be a while, but keep an eye out for a full moon.

MedTech clinical trials require a unique regulatory and study design approach and so engaging a highly experienced CRO to ensure compliance and accurate data across all stages is critical to development milestones.

In­no­v­a­tive MedTech De­mands Spe­cial­ist Clin­i­cal Tri­al Reg­u­la­to­ry Af­fairs and De­sign

Avance Clinical is the Australian CRO for international biotechs providing world-class clinical research services with FDA-accepted data across all phases. With Avance Clinical, biotech companies can leverage Australia’s supportive clinical trials environment which includes no IND requirement plus a 43.5% Government incentive rebate on clinical spend. The CRO has been delivering clinical drug development services for international biotechs for FDA and EMA regulatory approval for the past 24 years. The company has been recognized for the past two consecutive years with the prestigious Frost & Sullivan CRO Best Practices Award and a finalist in Informa Pharma’s Best CRO award for 2022.

Ted Love, Global Blood Therapeutics CEO

Up­dat­ed: Pfiz­er scoops up Glob­al Blood Ther­a­peu­tics and its sick­le cell ther­a­pies for $5.4B

Pfizer is dropping $5.4 billion to acquire Global Blood Therapeutics.

Just ahead of the weekend, word got out that Pfizer was close to clinching a $5 billion buyout — albeit with other potential buyers still at the table. The pharma giant, flush with cash from Covid-19 vaccine sales, apparently got out on top.

The deal immediately swells Pfizer’s previously tiny sickle cell disease portfolio from just a Phase I program to one with an approved drug, Oxbryta, plus a whole pipeline that, if all approved, the company believes could make for a $3 billion franchise at peak.

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BREAK­ING: Math­ai Mam­men makes an abrupt ex­it as head of the big R&D group at J&J

In an after-the-bell shocker, J&J announced Monday evening that Mathai Mammen has abruptly exited J&J as head of its top-10 R&D group.

Recruited from Merck 5 years ago, where the soft spoken Mammen was being groomed as the successor to Roger Perlmutter, he had been one of the top-paid R&D chiefs in biopharma. His group spent $12 billion last year on drug development, putting it in the top 5 in the industry.

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No­vavax shares shred­ded as Covid vac­cine sales fall more than 90% in Q2

Months after Novavax celebrated its first profitable quarter as a commercial company, the Gaithersburg, MD-based company is back in the red.

Sales for Novavax’s Covid-19 vaccine slipped to $55 million last quarter, down from $586 million in Q1, CEO Stanley Erck revealed on Monday after market close. The company’s stock $NVAX plummeted more than 32% in after-hours trading.

Upon kicking off the call with analysts and investors, Erck addressed the elephant in the room:

Uğur Şahin, BioNTech CEO (Kay Nietfeld/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

De­spite falling Covid-19 sales, BioN­Tech main­tains '22 sales guid­ance

While Pfizer raked in almost $28 billion last quarter, its Covid-19 vaccine partner BioNTech reported a rise in total dose orders but a drop in sales.

The German biotech reported over $3.2 billion in revenue in Q2 on Monday, down from more than $6.7 billion in Q1, in part due to falling Covid sales. While management said last quarter that they anticipated a Covid sales drop — CEO Uğur Şahin said at the time that “the pandemic situation is still very much uncertain” — Q2 sales still missed consensus by 14%.

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FDA commissioner Rob Califf (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

With drug pric­ing al­most done, Con­gress looks to wrap up FDA user fee leg­is­la­tion

The Senate won’t return from its summer recess until Sept. 6, but when it does, it officially has 18 business days to finalize the reauthorization of the FDA user fee programs for the next 5 years, or else thousands of drug and biologics reviewers will be laid off and PDUFA dates will vanish in the interim.

FDA commissioner Rob Califf recently sent agency staff a memo explaining how, “Our latest estimates are that we have carryover for PDUFA [Prescription Drug User Fee Act], the user fee funding program that will run out of funding first, to cover only about 5 weeks into the next fiscal year.”

Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca CEO (David Zorrakino/Europa Press via AP Images)

As­traZeneca and Dai­ichi Sankyo sprint to mar­ket af­ter FDA clears En­her­tu in just two weeks

Regulators didn’t keep AstraZeneca and Daiichi Sankyo waiting long at all for their latest Enhertu approval.

The partners pulled a win on Friday in HER2-low breast cancer patients who’ve already failed on chemotherapy, less than two weeks after its supplemental BLA was accepted. While this isn’t the FDA’s fastest approval — Bristol Myers Squibb won an OK for its blockbuster checkpoint inhibitor Opdivo in just five days back in March — it comes well ahead of Enhertu’s original Q4 PDUFA date.

Bernhardt Zeiher, outgoing Astellas CMO (Astellas)

Q&A: Astel­las' re­tir­ing head of de­vel­op­ment re­flects on gene ther­a­py deaths

For anyone who’s been following discussions about the safety alarms surrounding the adeno-associated viruses (AAV) commonly used to deliver gene therapy, Astellas should be a familiar name.

The Japanese pharma — which bought out Audentes Therapeutics near the end of 2019 and later built a gene therapy unit around the acquisition — rocked the field when it reported three patient deaths in a trial testing AT132, the lead program from Audentes designed to treat a rare muscle disease called X-linked myotubular myopathy (XLMTM).

When the company restarted the trial, it adjusted the dose and instituted a battery of other measures to try to prevent the same thing from happening again. But tragically, the first patient to receive the new regimen died just weeks after administration. The therapy remains under clinical hold, and just weeks ago, Astellas flagged another safety-related hold for a separate gene therapy candidate. In the process of investigating the deaths, the company has also taken flak about the way it disclosed information.

Big questions remain — questions that can have big implications about the future of AAV gene therapies.

Bernhardt Zeiher did not imagine any of it when he first joined Astellas as the therapeutic area leader in inflammation, immunology and infectious diseases. But his ascent to chief medical officer and head of development coincided almost exactly with Astellas’ big move into gene therapy, putting him often in the driver’s seat to grapple with the setbacks.

As Zeiher prepares to retire next month after a 12-year tenure — leaving the unfinished tasks to his successor, a seasoned cancer drug developer — he chatted with Endpoints News, in part, to discuss the effort to understand what happened, lessons learned and the criticism along the way.

The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Endpoints: I want to also ask you a bit about the gene therapy efforts you’ve been working on. Astellas has really been at the forefront of discovering the safety concerns associated with AAV gene therapy. What’s that been like for you?

Zeiher: Well, I have to admit, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. We acquired Audentes. Huge amount of enthusiasm. What we saw with AT132 — that was the lead program in XLMTM — was just remarkable efficacy. I mean, kids who went from being on ventilators, not able to eat for themselves, sit up, do things like that, to off ventilators, walking, you know, really — one investigator called it this Lazarus-like effect. It was just really dramatic efficacy. And then to have the safety events that occurred. So they actually occurred within that first year of the acquisition. So we had the three patient deaths. Me and my organization became very, very much involved. In fact, Ed Conner, who had been the chief medical officer, he left after some of the deaths, but I stepped in as the kind of acting chief medical officer, we had another chief medical officer who was involved, and then we had a fourth death, and I became acting again for a period of time.

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Steve Paul, Karuna Therapeutics CEO (Third Rock)

Karuna's schiz­o­phre­nia drug pass­es a close­ly-watched PhI­II test, will head to FDA in mid-2023

An investigational pill that combines a former Eli Lilly CNS compound with an overactive bladder drug was better than placebo at reducing a scale of symptoms experienced by patients with schizophrenia in a Phase III trial.

Karuna Therapeutics’ drug passed the primary goal in EMERGENT-2, the Boston biotech said early Monday morning, alongside quarterly earnings. The study is the first of Karuna’s four Phase III clinical trials to read out in schizophrenia and will provide the backbone to the biotech’s first drug approval application, slated for mid-2023.

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