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.

UP­DAT­ED: FDA’s golodirsen CRL: Sarep­ta’s Duchenne drugs are dan­ger­ous to pa­tients, of­fer­ing on­ly a small ben­e­fit. And where's that con­fir­ma­to­ry tri­al?

Back last summer, Sarepta CEO Doug Ingram told Duchenne MD families and investors that the FDA’s shock rejection of their second Duchenne MD drug golodirsen was due to some concerns regulators raised about the risk of infection and the possibility of kidney toxicity. But when pressed to release the letter for all to see, he declined, according to a report from BioPharmaDive, saying that kind of move “might not look like we’re being as respectful as we’d like to be.”

He went on to assure everyone that he hadn’t misrepresented the CRL.

But Ingram’s public remarks didn’t include everything in the letter, which — following the FDA’s surprise about-face and unexplained approval — has now been posted on the FDA’s website and broadly circulated on Twitter early Wednesday.

The CRL raises plenty of fresh questions about why the FDA abruptly decided to reverse itself and hand out an OK for a drug a senior regulator at the FDA believed — 5 months ago, when he wrote the letter — is dangerous to patients. It also puts the spotlight back on Sarepta $SRPT, which failed to launch a confirmatory study of eteplirsen, which was only approved after a heated internal controversy at the FDA. Ellis Unger, director of CDER’s Office of Drug Evaluation I, notes that study could have clarified quite a lot about the benefit and risks associated with their drugs — which can cost as much as a million dollars per patient per year, depending on weight.

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2019 Trin­i­ty Drug In­dex Eval­u­ates Ac­tu­al Com­mer­cial Per­for­mance of Nov­el Drugs Ap­proved in 2016

Fewer Approvals, but Neurology Rivals Oncology and Sees Major Innovations

This report, the fourth in our Trinity Drug Index series, outlines key themes and emerging trends in the industry as we progress towards a new world of targeted and innovative products. It provides a comprehensive evaluation of the performance of novel drugs approved by the FDA in 2016, scoring each on its commercial performance, therapeutic value, and R&D investment (Table 1: Drug ranking – Ratings on a 1-5 scale).

How to cap­i­talise on a lean launch

For start-up biotechnology companies and resource stretched pharmaceutical organisations, launching a novel product can be challenging. Lean teams can make setting a launch strategy and achieving your commercial goals seem like a colossal undertaking, but can these barriers be transformed into opportunities that work to your brand’s advantage?
We spoke to Managing Consultant Frances Hendry to find out how Blue Latitude Health partnered with a fledgling subsidiary of a pharmaceutical organisation to launch an innovative product in a
complex market.
What does the launch environment look like for this product?
FH: We started working on the product at Phase II and now we’re going into Phase III trials. There is a significant unmet need in this disease area, and everyone is excited about the launch. However, the organisation is still evolving and the team is quite small – naturally this causes a little turbulence.

Mer­ck KGaA spin­out gets first fund­ing to bring dual-act­ing can­cer mol­e­cules in­to the clin­ic

Two and a half years after launch, Merck KGaA spinout iOnctura is getting its first major round of funding.

The oncology startup raised €15 million ($16.6 million) to put its lead drug into the clinic and get its second drug past IND-enabling tests. INKEF Capital and VI Partners co-led the round and were joined by the biotech’s longtime backer M Ventures, an arm of Merck KGaA, and Schroder Adveq.

Stephen Hahn, AP

The FDA has de­val­ued the gold stan­dard on R&D. And that threat­ens every­one in drug de­vel­op­ment

Bioregnum Opinion Column by John Carroll

A few weeks ago, when Stephen Hahn was being lightly queried by Senators in his confirmation hearing as the new commissioner of the FDA, he made the usual vow to maintain the gold standard in drug development.

Neatly summarized, that standard requires the agency to sign off on clinical data — usually from two, well-controlled human studies — that prove a drug’s benefit outweighs any risks.

Over the last few years, biopharma has enjoyed an unprecedented loosening over just what it takes to clear that bar. Regulators are more willing to drop the second trial requirement ahead of an accelerated approval — particularly if they have an unmet medical need where patients are clamoring for a therapy.

That confirmatory trial the FDA demands can wait a few years. And most everyone in biopharma would tell you that’s the right thing for patients. They know its a tonic for everyone in the industry faced with pushing a drug through clinical development. And it’s helped inspire a global biotech boom.

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Eli Lil­ly’s $1.6B can­cer drug failed to spark even the slight­est pos­i­tive gain for pa­tients in its 1st PhI­II

Eli Lilly had high hopes for its pegylated IL-10 drug pegilodecakin when it bought Armo last year for $1.6 billion in cash. But after reporting a few months ago that it had failed a Phase III in pancreatic cancer, without the data, its likely value has plunged. And now we’re getting some exact data that underscore just how little positive effect it had.

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Am­gen aug­ments Asia foothold by tak­ing over Astel­las joint ven­ture in Japan

California-based Amgen, which does the bulk of its business in the United States, made its ambition to reinvigorate its growth prospects by expanding its presence in Asia clear at the sidelines of the JP Morgan healthcare conference in San Francisco earlier this month.

The Thousand Oaks-based company on Thursday executed its plan to dissolve the joint venture with Astellas — created in 2013 — to operate the unit independently in Japan. With its rapidly aging population, the region represents an appealing market for Amgen’s osteoporosis treatments Prolia and Evenity as well as a cholesterol-lowering injection Repatha.

Daphne Zohar (PureTech)

PureTech bags $200M from sale of Karuna shares — still siz­zling from promis­ing schiz­o­phre­nia da­ta

Cashing in on the exuberance around Karuna Therapeutics and its potential blockbuster CNS drug, PureTech has sold a chunk of the biotech’s shares to Goldman Sachs for $200 million.

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UP­DAT­ED: New play­ers are jump­ing in­to the scram­ble to de­vel­op a vac­cine as pan­dem­ic pan­ic spreads fast

When the CNN news crew in Wuhan caught wind of the Chinese government’s plan to quarantine the city of 11 million people, they made a run for one of the last trains out — their Atlanta colleagues urging them on. On the way to the train station, they were forced to skirt the local seafood market, where the coronavirus at the heart of a brewing outbreak may have taken root.

And they breathlessly reported every moment of the early morning dash.

In shuttering the city, triggering an exodus of masked residents who caught wind of the quarantine ahead of time, China signaled that they were prepared to take extreme actions to stop the spread of a virus that has claimed 17 lives, sickened many more and panicked people around the globe.

CNN helped illustrate how hard all that can be.

The early reaction in the biotech industry has been classic, with small-cap companies scrambling to headline efforts to step in fast. But there are also new players in the field with new tech that has been introduced since the last of a series of pandemic panics that could change the usual storylines. And they’re volunteering for a crash course in speeding up vaccine development — a field where overnight solutions have been impossible to prove.

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