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.

Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk gestures to the audience after being recognized by President Trump following the successful launch of a Falcon 9 rocket at the Kennedy Space Center. (via Getty Images)

Tes­la chief Elon Musk teams up with Covid-19 play­er Cure­Vac to build 'R­NA mi­cro­fac­to­ries'

Elon Musk has joined the global tech crusade now underway to revolutionize vaccine manufacturing — now aimed at delivering billions of doses of a new mRNA vaccine to fight Covid-19. And he’s cutting right to the front.

In a late-night tweet Wednesday, the Tesla chief announced:

Tesla, as a side project, is building RNA microfactories for CureVac & possibly others.

That’s not a lot to go on. But the tweet comes a year after Tesla’s German division in Grohmann and CureVac filed a patent on a “bioreactor for RNA in vitro transcription, a method for RNA in vitro transcription, a module for transcribing DNA into RNA and an automated apparatus for RNA manufacturing.” CureVac, in the meantime, has discussed a variety of plans to build microfactories that can speed up the whole process for a global supply chain.

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George Yancopoulos (Regeneron)

UP­DAT­ED: Re­gen­eron co-founder George Yan­copou­los of­fers a com­bat­ive de­fense of the po­lice at a high school com­mence­ment. It didn’t go well

Typically, the commencement speech at Yorktown Central School District in Westchester — like most high schools — is an opportunity to encourage students to face the future with confidence and hope. Regeneron president and co-founder George Yancopoulos, though, went a different route.

In a fiery speech, the outspoken billionaire defended the police against the “prejudice and bias against law enforcement” that has erupted around the country in street protests from coast to coast. And for many who attended the commencement, Yancopoulos struck the wrong note at the wrong time, especially when he combatively challenged someone for interrupting his speech with a honk for “another act of cowardness.”

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Elias Zerhouni (Photo by Vincent Isore/IP3/Getty Images)

Elias Zer­houni dis­cuss­es ‘am­a­teur hour’ in DC, the de­struc­tion of in­fec­tious dis­ease R&D and how we need to prep for the next time

Elias Zerhouni favors blunt talk, and in a recent discussion with NPR, the ex-Sanofi R&D and ex-NIH chief had some tough points to make regarding the pandemic response.

Rather than interpret them, I thought it would be best to provide snippets straight from the interview.

On the Trump administration response:

It was basically amateur hour. There is no central concept of operations for preparedness, for pandemics, period. This administration doesn’t want to or has no concept of what it takes to protect the American people and the world because it is codependent. You can’t close your borders and say, “OK, we’re going to be safe.” You’re not going to be able to do that in this world. So it’s a lack of vision, basically just a lack of understanding, of what it takes to protect the American people.

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Sec­ond death trig­gers hold on Astel­las' $3B gene ther­a­py biotech's lead pro­gram, rais­ing fresh con­cerns about AAV

Seven months after Astellas shelled out $3 billion to acquire the gene therapy player Audentes, the biotech company’s lead program has been put on hold following the death of 2 patients taking a high dose of their treatment. And there was another serious adverse event recorded in the study as well, with a total of 3 “older” patients in the study affected.

The incidents are derailing plans to file for a near-term approval, which had been expected right about now.

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Look­ing for 'ex­ter­nal in­no­va­tion,' Boehringer In­gel­heim re­serves $500M+ for new Shang­hai hub

Now that Boehringer Ingelheim’s bet on contract manufacturing in China has paid off, the German drugmaker is anteing up more to get into the research game.

Boehringer has set aside $507.9 million (€451 million) for a new External Innovation Hub to be built in Shanghai over five years. The site will become one of its “strategic pillars” as the team strives to get 71 approvals — either for new products or indications — by 2030, said Felix Gutsche, president and CEO of Boehringer Ingelheim China.

Vas Narasimhan, Novartis CEO (Patrick Straub/​EPA-EFE/​Shutterstock)

No­var­tis pays $678M for kick­back scheme as Vas Narasimhan tries to dis­tance phar­ma gi­ant from shady be­hav­ior

Novartis has reached another large settlement to resolve misconduct allegations, agreeing to pay more than $678 million to settle claims that it had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lavish dinners, so-called speaking fees and expensive alcohol “that were nothing more than bribes” to get doctors to prescribe Novartis medications.

The top-shelf alcohol and lavish meals included a $3,250 per person night at Nobu in Dallas, a $672-per person dinner at Washington DC’s Smith & Wollensky and a $314 per person meal at Sushi Roku in Pasadena, according to the Justice Department complaint. There were at least 7 trips to Hooters and fishing trips in Alaska and off the Florida coast. Each of these events were supposed to be “speaker programs” where doctors educated other doctors on a drug, but the DOJ alleged many were “bogus” wine-and-dine events where the drug was barely mentioned, if at all.  (“Nobody presented slides on the fishing trips,” the complaint says.)

No­vavax snags Ben Machielse for CMC and pro­motes a trio of staffers; Mar­ty Du­vall lands an­oth­er CEO post at On­copep­tides

Novavax has been making waves recently by securing a $384 million commitment from CEPI to cover R&D and manufacturing for its Covid-19 vaccine while also spending $167 million on a 150,000 square-foot facility. The Maryland biotech continues to shore up its leadership team as well, bringing in Ben Machielse as their EVP of CMC just a couple weeks after nabbing AstraZeneca vet Filip Dubrovsky as their new CMO. Machielse was president and CEO of Vtesse from 2014-17, and before that, he also spent more than 11 years at MedImmune and was EVP of operations for the back half of his tenure.

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Dan Gold, MEI Pharma CEO

De­vel­op­ment part­ners at MEI, Helsinn dump a high-risk PhI­II AML study af­ter con­clud­ing it would fail sur­vival goal

Four years after Switzerland’s Helsinn put $25 million of cash on the table for an upfront and near-term milestone to take MEI Pharma’s drug pracinostat into a long-running Phase III trial for acute myeloid leukemia, the partners are walking away from a clinical pileup.

The drug — an HDAC inhibitor — failed to pass muster during a futility analysis, as researchers concluded that pracinostat combined with azacitidine wasn’t going to outperform the control group in the pivotal.

Douglas Love, Annexon CEO (Annexon)

IPO bound? A Bay Area biotech grabs a mega-round on the road to a piv­otal neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion pro­gram

South San Francisco-based Annexon has added $100 million to its cash reserves, along with a new roster of marquee investors backing their play on the classical complement pathway involved in neurodegeneration. And that may well fit the profile for an IPO — though right now everything seems to be working on that score.

Eighteen months after Bain and their syndicate partners put up $75 million to fuel clinical work, Annexon is back at the trough. And this time they’re adding Redmile Group for the lead role, with supporting investments from these new arrivals: BlackRock, Deerfield Management Company, Eventide Asset Management, Farallon Capital Management, Janus Henderson Investors and Logos Capital.

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