Rosana Kapeller listening to a member on the breakfast panel at #BIO19 discuss AI in R&D in Philadelphia (Jeff Rumans for Endpoints News)

Nim­bus founder Rosana Kapeller has a new com­pa­ny, with $50M and an eye on the ‘re­peatome’

Rosana Kapeller left Nim­bus two years ago de­ter­mined, af­ter 2 decades and 3 com­pa­nies, that her next spot would be as CEO. To­day, af­ter a 7-month sab­bat­i­cal and a stint at a top VC firm, the joc­u­lar com­pu­ta­tion­al bi­ol­o­gy pi­o­neer is back. And with full con­trol.

“I re­al­ly want­ed to… make a unique or­ga­ni­za­tion, a unique cul­ture,” Kapeller told End­points News. I want­ed that chal­lenge.”

And a chal­lenge it will be, both sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly and be­cause, well, there’s a pan­dem­ic keep­ing much of her 10-per­son team work­ing from her home. “This is a hard time to start a com­pa­ny,” she ac­knowl­edged.

Still, Kapeller is con­fi­dent, plac­ing her faith both in the am­bi­tious sci­ence of her new com­pa­ny and in her own ex­pe­ri­ence as a busi­ness­woman, dat­ing back to her up­bring­ing in a busi­ness-fo­cused fam­i­ly in Brazil. The new com­pa­ny is ROME Ther­a­peu­tics and it’s launch­ing out of stealth mode with $50 mil­lion in Se­ries A fund­ing from GV — where Kapeller served as en­tre­pre­neur-in-res­i­dence for the last year — ARCH Ven­tures, and Part­ners In­no­va­tion Fund. The biotech is one of a se­ries that have arisen in the past few years to tar­get parts of what was once deemed “junk DNA”: the 97-99% of ge­net­ic code that doesn’t code for pro­teins. Al­though sci­en­tists have known for decades now that at least parts of this vast nu­cle­ic flot­sam serve key func­tions, un­tan­gling those func­tions has been a ma­jor hur­dle. Drug­ging them has been an even larg­er one.

ROME will tar­get one seg­ment of this erst­while junk called the “re­peatome.” The name has yet to catch on — a PubMed search pro­duced 22 re­sults and the Wikipedia page is a sin­gle para­graph at­trib­uted to one PLOS pa­per out of France — but the field has slow­ly gained steam since a 2011 Sci­ence pa­per, on which ROME co-founder David Ting was lead au­thor.

The re­peatome refers to some 50% of hu­man DNA that is made up of se­quences that re­peat over and over again — like a mu­si­cal or lit­er­ary mo­tif — and that don’t make any pro­teins. Some of these, as sci­en­tists have long known, are retro­virus­es that in­fect­ed us and em­bed­ded their codes in our DNA over mil­lions of years of evo­lu­tions. Oth­er se­quences, though, are “virus-like,” said Ting. Most of the time these se­quences are blocked from do­ing any­thing, trapped by methyl agents or hi­s­tones that wrap like chains around DNA. But in some in­stances — such as some can­cers — dis­tressed cells take the chains off and trans­late the se­quences in­to RNA. Those RNA se­quences don’t make any pro­teins. But they look like RNA virus­es and ac­ti­vate the in­nate im­mune sys­tem as a virus would, call­ing it to at­tack a tu­mor.

“These re­peats are like the first re­spon­ders, telling the body these cells are be­com­ing un­con­trol­lable — con­trol it,” Kapeller said.

Two prob­lems can emerge. First, can­cer cells can de­vel­op ways of re­verse tran­scrib­ing these RNA se­quences back in­to their genome, both si­lenc­ing the im­mune sig­nals and adding to the can­cer’s ge­net­ic vari­abil­i­ty. In some au­toim­mune con­di­tions, the op­po­site prob­lem is at play, Kapeller said. Healthy cells send off these RNA re­peats, trig­ger­ing a dam­ag­ing im­mune re­sponse.

Kapeller talks about ROME’s role as restor­ing “yin and yang”: Keep­ing the im­mune sig­nals go­ing in can­cer and turn­ing them off in au­toim­mune dis­eases. ROME has not yet re­vealed how they plan on do­ing that, but when Ting first hy­poth­e­sized that can­cers were tran­scrib­ing these sig­nals, he start­ed a clin­i­cal tri­al with a com­mon HIV drug on 4th line colon can­cer pa­tients. The HIV drug, which is meant to stop the HIV virus from re­verse tran­scrib­ing it­self, ap­peared to in­hib­it the can­cer’s abil­i­ty to re­verse tran­scribe the RNA sig­nals. The pa­tients on the study main­tained their con­di­tion, a rar­i­ty for that form and stage of can­cer.

“Some­how can­cer has re­pur­posed this process to repli­cate and grow in­to tu­mor,” Ting told End­points, de­scrib­ing his dis­cov­ery. “It was kind of an ac­ci­dent, an ac­ci­dent of some­thing we were told was junk and find­ing the junk was ac­tu­al­ly do­ing some­thing.”

David Ting

Click on the im­age to see the full-sized ver­sion

That some­thing evad­ed sci­en­tists in part be­cause ear­ly DNA se­quencers lacked the abil­i­ty to pick up and an­a­lyze these vast codex­es of DNA and study which re­peats were be­ing tran­scribed in­to RNA. To do so, ROME will re­ly on two new but es­tab­lished tech­niques, se­quenc­ing of long stretch­es of DNA and se­quenc­ing of the RNA be­ing tran­scribed in­side a cell, along­side a ma­chine learn­ing ap­proach set up by the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Ben­jamin Green­baum. In part, that’s what made it a fit­ting project for Kapeller, who did com­pu­ta­tion­al work at Mil­len­ni­um and Ailleron and then was en­list­ed by At­las Ven­tures to launch Nim­bus, one of the first ma­jor com­pu­ta­tion­al biotechs.

Al­though it will be Kapeller’s first stint as a CEO, it will hard­ly be her first time in lead­er­ship. Nim­bus lacked a CEO for its first 4.5 years, she notes, leav­ing con­trol of the biotech be­tween her­self and the board. She says that she’s learned a few things from her ex­pe­ri­ence with past com­pa­nies: That con­trol and com­mand doesn’t work, trans­paren­cy is nec­es­sary, and di­ver­si­ty and putting women in man­age­ment mat­ters. She brings an MD-PhD’s un­der­stand­ing of pa­tients, she said, and she took some­thing be­sides busi­ness acu­men back from her home­town of Rio de Janeiro: a cer­tain warmth.

“I’m from Brazil and Brazil­ians love to use hu­mor a lot,” Kapel­lar said.

For in­stance, she led off the com­pa­ny’s first meet­ing with their PR firm with a slide of her­self and her co-founders in Ro­man glad­i­a­tor cos­tumes. She’s re­luc­tant to men­tion those jokes in in­ter­views, though, weary af­ter enough years as an ex­ec­u­tive of how it might be trans­lat­ed.

With the sci­ence, she’s bold­er. They’re one of the first jump­ing in­to a still-emerg­ing field, she said, and their goal is sus­tained re­mis­sion: can­cer and au­toim­mune treat­ments that won’t stop work­ing af­ter a few months, or years.

This is “com­plete­ly un­chart­ed ter­ri­to­ry,” Kapeller said.

BiTE® Plat­form and the Evo­lu­tion To­ward Off-The-Shelf Im­muno-On­col­o­gy Ap­proach­es

Despite rapid advances in the field of immuno-oncology that have transformed the cancer treatment landscape, many cancer patients are still left behind.1,2 Not every person has access to innovative therapies designed specifically to treat his or her disease. Many currently available immuno-oncology-based approaches and chemotherapies have brought long-term benefits to some patients — but many patients still need other therapeutic options.3

President Donald Trump (left) and Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed (Alex Brandon, AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: White House names fi­nal­ists for Op­er­a­tion Warp Speed — with 5 ex­pect­ed names and one no­table omis­sion

A month after word first broke of the Trump Administration’s plan to rapidly accelerate the development and production of a Covid-19 vaccine, the White House has selected the five vaccine candidates they consider most likely to succeed, The New York Times reported.

Most of the names in the plan, known as Operation Warp Speed, will come as little surprise to those who have watched the last four months of vaccine developments: Moderna, which was the first vaccine to reach humans and is now the furthest along of any US effort; J&J, which has not gone into trials but received around $500 million in funding from BARDA earlier this year; the joint AstraZeneca-Oxford venture which was granted $1.2 billion from BARDA two weeks ago; Pfizer, which has been working with the mRNA biotech BioNTech; and Merck, which just entered the race and expects to put their two vaccine candidates into humans later this year.

Is a pow­er­house Mer­ck team prepar­ing to leap past Roche — and leave Gilead and Bris­tol My­ers be­hind — in the race to TIG­IT dom­i­na­tion?

Roche caused quite a stir at ASCO with its first look at some positive — but not so impressive — data for their combination of Tecentriq with their anti-TIGIT drug tiragolumab. But some analysts believe that Merck is positioned to make a bid — soon — for the lead in the race to a second-wave combo immuno-oncology approach with its own ambitious early-stage program tied to a dominant Keytruda.

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Leen Kawas, Athira CEO (Athira)

Can a small biotech suc­cess­ful­ly tack­le an Ever­est climb like Alzheimer’s? Athi­ra has $85M and some in­flu­en­tial back­ers ready to give it a shot

There haven’t been a lot of big venture rounds for biotech companies looking to run a Phase II study in Alzheimer’s.

The field has been a disaster over the past decade. Amyloid didn’t pan out as a target — going down in a litany of Phase III failures — and is now making its last stand at Biogen. Tau is a comer, but when you look around and all you see is destruction, the idea of backing a startup trying to find complex cocktails to swing the course of this devilishly complicated memory-wasting disease would daunt the pluckiest investors.

Pfiz­er’s Doug Gior­dano has $500M — and some ad­vice — to of­fer a cer­tain breed of 'break­through' biotech

So let’s say you’re running a cutting-edge, clinical-stage biotech, probably public, but not necessarily so, which could see some big advantages teaming up with some marquee researchers, picking up say $50 million to $75 million dollars in a non-threatening minority equity investment that could take you to the next level.

Doug Giordano might have some thoughts on how that could work out.

The SVP of business development at the pharma giant has helped forge a new fund called the Pfizer Breakthrough Growth Initiative. And he has $500 million of Pfizer’s money to put behind 7 to 10 — or so — biotech stocks that fit that general description.

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GSK presents case to ex­pand use of its lu­pus drug in pa­tients with kid­ney dis­ease, but the field is evolv­ing. How long will the mo­nop­oly last?

In 2011, GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta became the first biologic to win approval for lupus patients. Nine years on, the British drugmaker has unveiled detailed positive results from a study testing the drug in lupus patients with associated kidney disease — a post-marketing requirement from the initial FDA approval.

Lupus is a drug developer’s nightmare. In the last six decades, there has been just one FDA approval (Benlysta), with the field resembling a graveyard in recent years with a string of failures including UCB and Biogen’s late-stage flop, as well as defeats in Xencor and Sanofi’s programs. One of the main reasons the success has eluded researchers is because lupus, akin to cancer, is not just one disease — it really is a disease of many diseases, noted Al Roy, executive director of Lupus Clinical Investigators Network, an initiative of New York-based Lupus Research Alliance that claims it is the world’s leading private funder of lupus research, in an interview.

Covid-19 roundup: Mod­er­na read­ies to en­ter PhI­II in Ju­ly, As­traZeneca not far be­hind; EU ready to ne­go­ti­ate vac­cine ac­cess with $2.7B fund

Moderna may soon add another first to the Covid-19 vaccine race.

In March, the mRNA biotech was the first company to put a Covid-19 vaccine into humans. Next month, they may become the first company to put their vaccine into the large, late-stage trials that are needed to prove whether the vaccine is effective.

In an interview with JAMA editor Howard Bauchner, NIAID chief Anthony Fauci said that a 30,000-person, Phase III trial for Moderna’s vaccine could start in July. The news comes a week after Moderna began a Phase II study that will enroll several hundred people.

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José Basel­ga finds promise in new class of RNA-mod­i­fy­ing can­cer tar­gets, lock­ing in 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams with $55M

Having dived early into some of the RNA breakthroughs of the last decades — betting on Moderna’s mRNA tech and teaming up with Silence on the siRNA front — AstraZeneca is jumping into a new arena: going after proteins that modify RNA.

Their partner of choice is Accent Therapeutics, which is receiving $55 million in upfront payment to steer a selected preclinical program through to the end of Phase I. After AstraZeneca takes over, the Lexington, MA-based startup has the option to co-develop and co-commercialize in the US — and collect up to $1.1 billion in milestones in the long run. The deal also covers two other potential drug candidates.

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Joseph Kim, Inovio CEO (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

Caught in a stand­off with its con­tract man­u­fac­tur­er over Covid-19 vac­cine, In­ovio files suit in an at­tempt to break free while ri­vals race ahead

Inovio was one of the first vaccine developers to snag attention for a jab that their execs said promised to end the Covid-19 pandemic. Using their own unique DNA tech, CEO Joseph Kim said it took just 3 hours to work it out.

But while rivals are racing to the finish line with ambitious plans to make vast quantities of their vaccines with billions of dollars of deals, Inovio is still stuck at the starting line on manufacturing.