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.

M&A: a crit­i­cal dri­ver for sus­tain­able top-line growth in health­care

2021 saw a record $600B in healthcare M&A activity. In 2022, there is an anticipated slowdown in activity, however, M&A prospects remain strong in the medium to long-term. What are future growth drivers for the healthcare sector? Where might we see innovations that drive M&A? RBC’s Andrew Callaway, Global Head, Healthcare Investment Banking discusses with Vito Sperduto, Global Co-Head, M&A.

15 LGBTQ lead­ers in bio­phar­ma; Paul Stof­fels’ Gala­pa­gos re­vamp; As­traZeneca catch­es up in AT­TR; 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.

A return to in-person conferences also marks a return to on-the-ground reporting. My colleagues Beth Synder Bulik and Nicole DeFeudis were on-site at Cannes Lions, bringing live coverage of pharma’s presence at the ad festival — accompanied by photos from Clara Bui, our virtual producer, that bring you right to the scene. You can find a recap (and links to all the stories) below.

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AstraZeneca's new Evusheld direct to consumer campaign aims to reach more immunocompromised patients.

As­traZeneca de­buts first con­sumer cam­paign for its Covid-19 pro­phy­lac­tic Evusheld — and a first for EUA drugs

AstraZeneca’s first consumer ad for Evusheld is also a first for drugs that have been granted emergency use authorizations during the pandemic.

The first DTC ad for a medicine under emergency approval, the Evusheld campaign launching this week aims to raise awareness among immunocompromised patients — and spur more use.

Evusheld nabbed emergency authorization in December, however, despite millions of immunocompromised people looking for a solution and now more widespread availability of the drug.

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De­spite a slow start to the year for deals, PwC pre­dicts a flur­ry of ac­tiv­i­ty com­ing up

Despite whispers of a busy year for M&A, deal activity in the pharma space is actually down 30% on a semi-annualized basis, according to PwC’s latest report on deal activity. But don’t rule out larger deals in the second half of the year, the consultants said.

PwC pharmaceutical and life sciences consulting solutions leader Glenn Hunzinger expects to see Big Pharma companies picking up earlier stage companies to try and fill pipeline gaps ahead of a slew of big patent cliffs. Though a bear market continues to maul the biotech sector, Hunzinger said recent deals indicate that pharma companies are still paying above current trading prices.

Abortion-rights protesters regroup and protest following Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Fol­low­ing SCO­TUS de­ci­sion to over­turn abor­tion pro­tec­tions, AG Gar­land says states can't ban the abor­tion pill

Following the Supreme Court’s historic decision on Friday to overturn Americans’ constitutional right to an abortion after almost 50 years, Attorney General Merrick Garland sought to somewhat reassure women that states will not be able to ban the prescription drug sometimes used for abortions.

Following the decision, the New England Journal of Medicine also published an editorial strongly condemning the reversal, saying it “serves American families poorly, putting their health, safety, finances, and futures at risk.”

Joe Wiley, Amryt Pharma CEO

Am­ryt Phar­ma sub­mits a for­mal dis­pute res­o­lu­tion to the FDA over re­ject­ed skin dis­ease drug

The story of Amryt Pharma’s candidate for the genetic skin condition epidermolysis bullosa, or EB, will soon enter another chapter.

After the Irish drugmaker’s candidate, dubbed Oleogel-S10 and marketed as Filsuvez, was handed a CRL earlier this year, the company announced in a press release that it plans to submit a formal dispute resolution request for the company’s NDA for Oleogel-S10.

Yong Dai, Frontera Therapeutics CEO

Scoop: Lit­tle-known Or­biMed-backed biotech clos­es $160M round to start gene ther­a­py tri­al

Frontera Therapeutics, a China and US biotech, has closed a $160 million Series B and received regulatory clearance to test its first gene therapy stateside, Endpoints News has learned.

Led by the largest shareholder, OrbiMed, the biotech has secured $195 million total since its September 2019 founding, according to an email reviewed by Endpoints. The lead AAV gene therapy program is for an undisclosed rare eye disease, according to the source.

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DEM BioPharma CEO David Donabedian (L) and executive chair Jan Skvarka

Long­wood sets an­oth­er 'don't eat me' biotech in­to gear with help of for­mer Tril­li­um CEO Jan Skvar­ka

Jonathan Weissman and team are out with a cancer-fighting biotech riding the appetite for those so-called “don’t eat me” and “eat me” signals.

The scientific co-founder — alongside fellow Whitehead Institute colleague Kipp Weiskopf and Stanford biologist Michael Bassik — has launched DEM BioPharma with incubator Longwood Fund and a crop of other investors.

In all, the nascent, 10-employee biotech has $70 million to bankroll hematology- and solid tumor-based programs, including a lead asset that could enter human trials in two to three years, CEO David Donabedian told Endpoints News.

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GSK says its drug for chron­ic hep B could ‘lead to a func­tion­al cure’ — but will it be alone or in com­bi­na­tion?

GSK, newly branded and soon-to-be demerged, shared interim results from its Phase II trial on its chronic hepatitis B treatment, one that it says has the “potential to lead to a functional cure.”

At a presentation at the EASL International Liver Congress, GSK shared that in around 450 patients who received its hep B drug bepirovirsen for 24 weeks, just under 30% had hepatitis B surface antigen and viral DNA levels that were too low to detect.