New UK start­up pur­sues off-the-shelf CAR-T, can­cer vac­cines through 'dark anti­gen­s'

Sci­en­tists un­furl­ing the hu­man genome at the turn of the cen­tu­ry came across many sur­pris­es but per­haps noth­ing as shock­ing as the per­cent­age of the genome that didn’t ap­pear to code for any­thing. Around 2% wrote pro­teins and the rest ap­peared to be “junk,” “dark,” or, as the New York Times then put it, “the ap­par­ent prod­uct of a typ­ing pool of drunk­en ba­boons. ”

Armed with the sup­po­si­tion ba­boons hadn’t cre­at­ed hu­man DNA, many sci­en­tists have the spent the pre­vail­ing two decades fig­ur­ing out what the so-called junk DNA is for or how it got there. One start­up out of the UK is now by­pass­ing part of that ques­tion and at­tempt­ing to lever­age seg­ments of “dark” DNA for can­cer vac­cines and im­munother­a­pies.

Kevin Po­jasek

Er­vaxx launched out of Lon­don with $17.5 mil­lion in seed and Se­ries A fund­ing on the promise that some non-cod­ing DNA in fact codes pro­teins in can­cer cells and that those pro­teins could be tar­gets for can­cer vac­cines and off-the-shelf CAR–T. The fund­ing is from SV Health In­vestors and an undis­closed glob­al phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny. They’ve dubbed the tech “Dark Anti­gens” — af­ter the dark genome and a play on cos­mo­log­i­cal dark mat­ter, the vast amount of mat­ter in the uni­verse we’re pret­ty sure is there but re­mains in­vis­i­ble and large­ly in­scrutable.

“What we found is a set of se­quences in the genome that are se­lec­tive­ly tran­scribed and trans­lat­ed in can­cer and not in nor­mal cells,” CEO Kevin Po­jasek told End­points News.  “I think it’s sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly fas­ci­nat­ing that we’re sit­ting here in 2019 and find­ing new pro­teins in can­cer cells and from a ther­a­peu­tic per­spec­tive, it could make great anti­gens or neo-anti­gens for cell ther­a­py.”

Er­vaxx’s plat­form emerged out of a rel­a­tive­ly well-un­der­stood part of the dark genome, en­doge­nous retro­virus­es (ERV). Over mil­len­nia or eons of in­fect­ing hu­mans and our mam­malian an­ces­tors, these an­cient virus­es in­cor­po­rat­ed them­selves in­to our DNA and left a foot­print that ac­counts for about 8% of hu­man ge­net­ic code. Er­vaxx’s pitch is that the rapid dam­age can­cer caus­es to tu­mor DNA can lead pro­teins in these nor­mal­ly dead re­gions to be cod­ed.

It’s not clear what – if any­thing – these pro­teins do, but Po­jasek said they can func­tion as an anti­gen tar­get for tu­mor cells. He said their re­search showed that they are al­ready de­tectable to naive tu­mor cells, in the­o­ry al­low­ing Er­vaxx to use a vac­cine or a CAR-T process to then amp-up the im­mune re­sponse.

Be­cause the same anti­gens ap­pear to be present in dif­fer­ent peo­ple, they might al­low for an off-the-shelf CAR-T ap­proach, al­though Er­vaxx is al­so pur­su­ing a vac­cine and clas­sic CAR-T strat­e­gy. Its lead pro­gram is a vac­cine for melanoma, with oth­er ther­a­pies in the works for non-small cell lung can­cer, ovar­i­an can­cer and breast can­cer, among oth­ers. They hope to ward off re­sis­tance to any po­ten­tial ther­a­py by trig­ger­ing an im­mune re­sponse against mul­ti­ple dark anti­gens.

ZS Per­spec­tive: 3 Pre­dic­tions on the Fu­ture of Cell & Gene Ther­a­pies

The field of cell and gene therapies (C&GTs) has seen a renaissance, with first generation commercial therapies such as Kymriah, Yescarta, and Luxturna laying the groundwork for an incoming wave of potentially transformative C&GTs that aim to address diverse disease areas. With this renaissance comes several potential opportunities, of which we discuss three predictions below.

Allogenic Natural Killer (NK) Cells have the potential to displace current Cell Therapies in oncology if proven durable.

Despite being early in development, Allogenic NKs are proving to be an attractive new treatment paradigm in oncology. The question of durability of response with allogenic therapies is still an unknown. Fate Therapeutics’ recent phase 1 data for FT516 showed relatively quicker relapses vs already approved autologous CAR-Ts. However, other manufacturers, like Allogene for their allogenic CAR-T therapy ALLO-501A, are exploring novel lymphodepletion approaches to improve persistence of allogenic cells. Nevertheless, allogenic NKs demonstrate a strong value proposition relative to their T cell counterparts due to comparable response rates (so far) combined with the added advantage of a significantly safer AE profile. Specifically, little to no risk of graft versus host disease (GvHD), cytotoxic release syndrome (CRS), and neurotoxicity (NT) have been seen so far with allogenic NK cells (Fig. 1). In addition, being able to harness an allogenic cell source gives way to operational advantages as “off-the-shelf” products provide improved turnaround time (TAT), scalability, and potentially reduced cost. NKs are currently in development for a variety of overlapping hematological indications with chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-Ts) today, and the question remains to what extent they will disrupt the current cell therapy landscape. Click for more details.

What lured Hal Bar­ron away?; Top FDA minds on ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval re­forms; ‘Dead wrong’ Aduhelm ad blitz; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

Nothing can really compete with Hal Barron’s departure from GlaxoSmithKline as the news of the week, but we do have plenty of original reporting and analysis from the Endpoints team in this edition. Enjoy and have a nice weekend.

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Mer­ck wins le­gal bat­tle over in­sur­ance cov­er­age af­ter ran­somware at­tack

Merck has emerged victorious from a years-long legal battle with insurers over the coverage of more than a billion dollars in losses from the malware NotPetya, with a New Jersey Superior Court judge concluding that the responsibility is on insurers to clarify their policies around cyber attacks.

The pharma giant was one of several victims of a global cyber attack back in 2017 that also hit Danish shipping company Maersk, American food company Mondelēz, French construction giant Saint-Gobain and even the systems monitoring the Chernobyl nuclear power stations, Bloomberg reported back in 2019.

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Crit­ics push back on Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion ad blitz to get Medicare to change its Aduhelm rul­ing: 'Dead wrong'

The latest Alzheimer’s Association advertising campaign encourages people to fight.

Not against the disease or for more research or treatments, but against the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. More specifically, CMS’ recent reimbursement decision to only pay for Biogen and Eisai’s controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm for patients in clinical trials.

With CMS’ preliminary decision now in a 30-day comment period, patient advocates’ goal is to convince CMS to reverse its decision with a marketing blitz and public pressure.

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Dan O'Day, Gilead CEO (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Fail­ing to con­firm clin­i­cal ben­e­fit, Gilead pulls 2 ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval in­di­ca­tions for can­cer drug

Gilead recently decided to pull two indications for its cancer drug Zydelig — in relapsed follicular B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma (FL) and relapsed small lymphocytic leukemia (SLL) — after failing to complete the confirmatory trials required as part of the accelerated approvals from 2014.

“As the treatment landscape for FL and SLL has evolved, enrollment into the confirmatory study has been an ongoing challenge,” Gilead said in a statement, noting it formally notified the FDA of its decision to voluntarily withdraw these indications.

Richard Pazdur (via AACR)

Time lim­its on ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­provals? FDA's on­col­o­gy chief Rick Paz­dur eyes po­ten­tial re­forms via in­ter­na­tion­al ap­proach­es

The spotlight on the accelerated approval pathway continues to shine bright, with the FDA’s top oncology official writing in an opinion that the pathway may be strengthened with bits and pieces of what other regulators in Europe and elsewhere have done with their expedited approval pathways, such as adding expiration dates for these faster approvals to ensure they confirm clinical benefit in a timely manner.

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Hal Barron, Endpoints UKBIO20 (Jeff Rumans)

'Al­tos was re­al­ly a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­ni­ty': Hal Bar­ron re­flects on his big move

By all accounts, Hal Barron had one of the best jobs in Big Pharma R&D. He made more than $11 million in 2020, once again reaping more than his boss, Emma Walmsley, who always championed him at every opportunity. And he oversaw a global R&D effort that struck a variety of big-dollar deals for oncology, neurodegeneration and more.

Sure, the critics never let up about what they saw as a rather uninspiring late-stage pipeline, where the rubber hits the road in the Big Pharma world’s hunt for the next big near-term blockbuster, but the in-house reviews were stellar. And Barron was firmly focused on bringing up the success rate in clinical trials, holding out for the big rewards of moving the dial from an average 10% success rate to 20%.

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Executive Director of the EMA Emer Cooke (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment signs off on strength­en­ing drug reg­u­la­tor's abil­i­ty to tack­le short­ages

The European Parliament on Thursday endorsed a plan to increase the powers of the European Medicines Agency, which will be better equipped to monitor and mitigate shortages of drugs and medical devices.

By a vote of 655 to 31, parliament signed off on a provisional agreement reached with the European Council from last October, in which the EMA will create two shortage steering groups (one for drugs, the other for devices), a new European Shortages Monitoring Platform to facilitate data collection and increase transparency, and on funding for the work of the steering groups, task force, working parties and expert panels that are to be established.

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FDA+ roundup: FDA's neu­ro­science deputy de­parts amid on­go­ing Aduhelm in­ves­ti­ga­tions; Califf on the ropes?

Amid increased scrutiny into the close ties between FDA and Biogen prior to the controversial accelerated approval of Aduhelm, the deputy director of the FDA’s office of neuroscience has called it quits after more than two decades at the agency.

Eric Bastings will now take over as VP of development strategy at Ionis Pharmaceuticals, the company said Wednesday, where he will provide senior clinical and regulatory leadership in support of Ionis’ pipeline.

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