Lars Christian Wilde, Compass co-founder and CBO (via YouTube)

Mush­room mag­ic draws $80M in­jec­tion for Lon­don-based men­tal health start­up

The coro­n­avirus out­break has in­ter­fered with a mid-stage de­pres­sion tri­al test­ing its psilo­cy­bin com­pound, but the mag­ic of the mush­room has scored Pe­ter Thiel-backed Com­pass Path­ways an $80 mil­lion in­jec­tion in fresh fund­ing.

Ex­as­per­at­ed with the of­ten-in­ef­fec­tive ex­ist­ing slate of an­ti­de­pres­sants, the com­pa­ny set up shop in Lon­don in 2016 and made a bee­line for psilo­cy­bin, the psy­choac­tive in­gre­di­ent in mag­ic mush­rooms. It re­ceived the FDA break­through ther­a­py sta­tus for the com­pound for treat­ment-re­sis­tant de­pres­sion in 2018.

The study, de­signed to re­cruit 216 pa­tients across sites in North Amer­i­ca and Eu­rope, had be­gun re­cruit­ing when the coro­n­avirus out­break un­fold­ed. “We de­cid­ed to — with the Covid cri­sis — pause the study for now, un­til there’s bet­ter vis­i­bil­i­ty on how the world will de­vel­op,” said co-founder and chief busi­ness of­fi­cer Lars Chris­t­ian Wilde in an in­ter­view. “The pos­i­tive news is that we have a huge num­ber of pa­tients that have com­plet­ed pre-screen­ing and we’re ready to start over again when the world nor­mal­izes.”

Psilo­cy­bin is a sub­stance that in most re­gions is clas­si­fied as hav­ing no med­i­c­i­nal val­ue, falling in the same cat­e­go­ry as chem­i­cals such as LSD. The com­pa­ny’s man-made ver­sion of the chem­i­cal — which is il­le­gal across ge­o­gra­phies in its nat­ur­al fun­gi form — had been well-tol­er­at­ed in an ear­ly-stage, place­bo-con­trolled tri­al in 89 healthy vol­un­teers in De­cem­ber.

“I think one thing that stands out not on­ly in our healthy vol­un­teer’s study but al­so in the ear­li­er tri­als, is that typ­i­cal­ly pa­tients re­port a deep sense of grate­ful­ness for the ex­pe­ri­ence, a re­con­tex­tu­al­iza­tion of their suf­fer­ing, and of­ten­times in­sight in­to how and what led them to be­come de­pressed, and al­so see­ing so­lu­tions on how to over­come their de­pres­sion,” said Wilde, who claimed that one ses­sion with mag­ic mush­rooms had cured his anx­i­ety dis­or­der and de­pres­sion, which led to the cre­ation of Com­pass along with his co-founders.

The new fund­ing round in­clud­ed the par­tic­i­pa­tion of ATAI Life Sci­ences (al­so co-found­ed by Wilde); as well as new in­vestors, in­clud­ing the Mc­Quade Cen­ter for Strate­gic Re­search and De­vel­op­ment (a mem­ber of the glob­al Ot­su­ka fam­i­ly of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies), Founders Fund, Able Part­ners, Cam­den Part­ners Nexus, Per­cep­tive Ad­vi­sors, Skyviews Life Sci­ence, and Soleus Cap­i­tal.

Giv­en glob­al spikes in al­co­hol con­sump­tion and symp­toms of lone­li­ness due to iso­la­tion mea­sures, in the coro­n­avirus era men­tal health treat­ments are need­ed now more than ever, Wilde said, not­ing that the plan was to orig­i­nal­ly raise $70 mil­lion.

Psy­choac­tive in­gre­di­ents, whether de­rived from cannabis, LSD or mag­ic mush­rooms, have long cap­ti­vat­ed men­tal health re­searchers. Nav­i­gat­ing the com­plex le­gal hur­dles to ac­cess these com­pounds has thawed the pace of re­search but with mo­ti­vat­ed sci­en­tists and a grow­ing bur­den of poor­ly treat­ed men­tal health con­di­tions, the ecosys­tem of psy­che­del­ic re­search has ex­plod­ed. In Sep­tem­ber, Johns Hop­kins un­veiled it had scored $17 mil­lion to open its very own cen­ter of psy­che­del­ic re­search to ex­plore the im­pact of psy­che­del­ic com­pounds on cre­ativ­i­ty and well-be­ing.

But the brim­ming en­thu­si­asm comes with a healthy dose of skep­ti­cism. Crit­ics wor­ry that the bur­geon­ing re­search could in­cen­tivize un­bri­dled use of non-phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal ver­sions of these drugs and that clin­i­cal tri­al da­ta could be cloud­ed by the fact that place­bo-con­trolled stud­ies are not nec­es­sar­i­ly dou­ble-blind­ed, be­cause it is far too easy to de­ter­mine which group of pa­tients have been giv­en a place­bo.

In a bid to com­bat some of these chal­lenges, the mid-stage tri­al has three arms — eval­u­at­ing a 1 mg, 10 mg and 25 mg dose of psilo­cy­bin.

“Based on ear­li­er clin­i­cal work at Johns Hop­kins, and we’re very con­fi­dent that the 1 mg dose doesn’t have any sub­jec­tive ef­fects and for the pa­tient, but the ben­e­fit of such a de­sign is that we can at least deal with ex­pectan­cy bias — every pa­tient will re­ceive no­tice that they will re­ceive psilo­cy­bin,” Wilde said, adding that the com­pa­ny is al­so us­ing blind­ed raters, who have not par­tak­en in the ther­a­py ses­sion.

Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks (Evan Vucci/AP Images)

A P val­ue of 0.38? NE­JM re­sults raise new ques­tions for Eli Lil­ly's vaunt­ed Covid an­ti­body

Generally, a P value of 0.38 means your drug failed and by a fair margin. Depending on the company, the compound and the trial, it might mean the end of the program. It could trigger layoffs.

For Eli Lilly, though, it was part of the key endpoint on a trial that landed them a $1.2 billion deal with the US government to supply up to nearly 1 million Covid-19 antibodies.

So what does one make of that? Was the endpoint not so important, as Lilly maintains? Or did the US government promise a princely sum for a pedestrian drug?

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Noubar Afeyan, Flagship founder and CEO (Victor Boyko/Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Flag­ship launch­es Sen­da Bio­sciences with $88M in back­ing, look­ing to pi­o­neer the field of 'In­ter­sys­tems Bi­ol­o­gy'

Flagship Pioneering has a fresh company out this week, one that aims to lay the groundwork for a whole new discipline.

Senda Biosciences launched Wednesday with $88 million in Flagship cash. The goal? Gain insights into the molecular connections between people and coevolved nonhuman species like plants and bacteria, paving the way for “Intersystems Biology.”

Guillaume Pfefer has been tapped to run the show, a 25-year biotech veteran who comes from GSK after leading the development of the company’s shingles vaccine.

Daphne Koller, Getty

Bris­tol My­er­s' Richard Har­g­reaves pays $70M to launch a neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion al­liance with a star play­er in the ma­chine learn­ing world

Bristol Myers Squibb is turning to one of the star upstarts in the machine learning world to go back to the drawing board and come up with the disease models needed to find drugs that can work against two of the toughest targets in the neuro world.

Daphne Koller’s well-funded insitro is getting $70 million in cash and near-term milestones to use their machine learning platform to create induced pluripotent stem cell-derived disease models for ALS and frontotemporal dementia.

Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks at the Rose Garden, May 26, 2020 (Evan Vucci/AP Images)

Eli Lil­ly lines up a block­buster deal for Covid-19 an­ti­body, right af­ter it failed a NI­AID tri­al

Two days after Eli Lilly conceded that its antibody bamlanivimab was a flop in hospitalized Covid-19 patients, the US government is preparing to make it a blockbuster.

The pharma giant reported early Wednesday that it struck a deal to supply the feds with 300,000 vials of the drug at a cost of $375 million — once it gets an EUA stamp from the FDA. And once that 2-month supply deal is done, the government has an option on another 650,000 doses on the same terms — which could potentially add another $812 million.

Patrick Soon-Shiong at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, Jan. 13, 2020 (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter falling be­hind the lead­ers, dissed by some ex­perts, biotech show­man Patrick Soon-Sh­iong fi­nal­ly gets his Covid-19 vac­cine ready for a tri­al. But can it live up to the hype?

In January, when dozens of scientists rushed to start making a vaccine for the then-novel coronavirus, they were joined by an unlikely compatriot: Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire doctor most famous for making big, controversial promises on cancer research.

Soon-Shiong had spent the last 4 years on his “Cancer Moonshot,” but part of his project meant buying a small Seattle biotech that specialized in making common-cold vectors, called adenoviruses, to train the immune system. The billionaire had been using those vectors for oncology, but the company had also developed vaccine candidates for H1N1, Lassa fever and other viruses. When the outbreak began, he pivoted.

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Q32 Bio grabs $60M to kick off hu­man stud­ies for next-gen com­ple­ment drugs — with some Covid-19 tweaks along the way

For a company that launched in the early months of the pandemic, Q32 Bio had its fair share of run-ins with the new normals under Covid-19.

The original plan, for instance, was to conduct first-in-human studies of the IL-7 receptor antibody it licensed from Bristol Myers Squibb in the Netherlands. But they realized shortly after that while the country was beginning to open up clinical trials, there were additional restrictions on drugs that tampered with immunological mechanisms.

Konstantin Poukalov

Per­cep­tive re­cruits A-list in­vestors to back its in-house Chi­na start­up with a mam­moth $310M raise

It took two years for Perceptive Advisors to conceive and boot up LianBio, its big bet on a new kind of in-licensing model for China, seeding it with enough cash to set up two anchoring deals with MyoKardia and BridgeBio. The result was a startup that was all ready to go, reaping $310 million just a little over two months after official launch.

Homegrown Chinese biotechs — many of them boasting of US ties and execs with overseas credentials — have been raking in mega-venture rounds in 2020, both from influential local backers and overseas VC firms that have been loading up new cash. As with IPOs, the deal flow might be slower but the amounts are often more staggering. LianBio’s latest round, unusually, is branded both a Series A and crossover.

Ar­cus and As­traZeneca part­ner on a high stakes an­ti-TIG­IT/PD-L1 PhI­II can­cer study, look­ing to im­prove on a stan­dard of care

For AstraZeneca, the PACIFIC trial in Stage III non-small cell lung cancer remains one of the big triumphs for AstraZeneca’s oncology R&D group. It not only made their PD-L1 Imfinzi a franchise player with a solid advance in a large niche of the lung cancer market, the study — which continues to offer data on the long-range efficacy of their drug — also helped salve the vicious sting of the failure of the CTLA-4 combo in the MYSTIC study.

Dan O'Day, Gilead CEO (Getty Images)

Covid-19 roundup: Mod­er­na posts $1.1B in Covid-19 vac­cine de­posits; Gilead CEO sees po­ten­tial need for Vek­lury on a 'sea­son­al ba­sis'

Moderna’s $MRNA executive team is clearly itching to get a near-term EUA for their Covid-19 vaccine.

The mRNA wunderkind posted an update on their pivotal trial for mRNA-1273, with a note that they have $1.1 billion in customer deposits for the vaccine.

Right now Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel and his team are neck-and-neck with Pfizer/BioNTech in a race to unveil data on what could be the first vaccines for the pandemic. And he is not one to downplay the company’s prospects.

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