Vincent Sandanayaka (file photo)

Ex-MD An­der­son chief De­Pin­ho is help­ing launch an­oth­er biotech — and he's stick­ing with fa­mil­iar ground

Years af­ter co-found­ing SINE-fo­cused Karyopharm and stir­ring up con­tro­ver­sy at MD An­der­son, Ronald De­Pin­ho is help­ing un­cloak a new biotech tar­get­ing solute car­ri­er trans­porter pro­teins — and Karyopharm’s for­mer head of chem­istry is lead­ing the charge.

Nir­ogy Ther­a­peu­tics emerged from stealth mode on Tues­day with a $16.5 mil­lion Se­ries A round and plans to hit the clin­ic by 2022. The fi­nanc­ing should be enough to car­ry the start­up’s lead pro­gram, a small mol­e­cule lac­tate trans­port in­hibitor, through Phase I, CEO Vin­cent San­danaya­ka said.

San­danaya­ka said he first be­came in­trigued by tu­mor me­tab­o­lism while lead­ing the chem­istry unit at Karyopharm — an­oth­er on­col­o­gy com­pa­ny that De­Pin­ho helped start be­fore join­ing MD An­der­son. That biotech land­ed a Se­ries A in 2010 for its work on se­lec­tive in­hibitors of nu­clear ex­port (SINE), and raised eye­brows last year when its mul­ti­ple myelo­ma drug got ap­proval from the FDA de­spite ob­jec­tions from 8 of the 13 ex­perts on an out­side pan­el.

Af­ter co-found­ing Karyopharm, De­Pin­ho served a six-year tenure as pres­i­dent at MD An­der­son, dur­ing which time the cen­ter re­port­ed op­er­at­ing loss­es of more than $460 mil­lion over 16 months and hun­dreds of staffers were laid off. He stepped down in 2017.

But while many re­searchers in the space were go­ing af­ter in­tra­cel­lu­lar tar­gets, not many were work­ing on solute car­ri­er trans­porters — mem­brane-bound pro­teins that block or reg­u­late metabo­lites like glu­cose, San­danaya­ka said. Solute car­ri­er trans­porter pro­teins (SLCTs) act as gate­keep­ers of im­por­tant phys­i­o­log­i­cal func­tions, in­clud­ing nu­tri­ent up­take and metabo­lite dis­pos­al. The pro­teins are aber­rant­ly al­tered in many dis­eases — but they’re dif­fi­cult to iso­late, and thus dif­fi­cult to study.

“If you take these trans­porters out of the mem­brane, like if you’re try­ing to iso­late it, you may lose the func­tion­al state of the pro­tein,” San­danaya­ka said. Nir­ogy gets around the is­sue by us­ing com­pu­ta­tion­al mod­el­ing.

The CEO found­ed Nir­ogy in 2014 and reached out to De­Pin­ho in 2019, the same year the start­up got some seed fund­ing. Their lead pro­gram takes a two-pronged ap­proach to fight can­cer. Un­like nor­mal cells, can­cer cells con­sume large amounts of glu­cose, and ex­crete lac­tic acid in­to the tu­mor mi­croen­vi­ron­ment through lac­tate trans­porters. This cre­ates a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment for im­mune cells to sur­vive.

But if that lac­tic acid isn’t re­leased, it ac­cu­mu­lates, caus­ing the cell to die, San­danaya­ka said. Nir­ogy’s can­di­date fights can­cer cells by in­hibit­ing them from ex­pelling the lac­tate, while al­so boost­ing im­mune re­sponse.

San­danaya­ka be­lieves this “one-two punch” is what dif­fer­en­ti­ates it from Jnana Ther­a­peu­tics, which struck an al­liance with Roche in Ju­ly to ex­plore SLCT tar­gets in im­mune-me­di­at­ed and neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­eases. That deal starts small at $40 mil­lion, but can add up to $1 bil­lion if the phar­ma part­ner com­mits to de­vel­op­ing the pro­grams.

“As you might imag­ine for a lot of drugs can­cer cells de­vel­op re­sis­tance. So that’s part of the prob­lem, it may be ac­tive ini­tial­ly, but then can­cer cells de­vel­op a re­sis­tance… So, that is why we thought we want to have a mul­ti-pronged ap­proach to ad­dress this drug re­sis­tance,” San­danaya­ka said.

The start­up plans to test the lac­tate in­hibitor both as a monother­a­py and com­bi­na­tion ther­a­py, and has done pre­clin­i­cal mod­els in triple neg­a­tive breast can­cer, melanoma, and col­orec­tal can­cer, in com­bi­na­tion with an­ti-PD1 and an­ti-CT­LA4 im­munother­a­pies.

In ad­di­tion to the lead pro­gram, Nir­ogy has a sec­ond trans­porter tar­get in can­cer and a third pro­gram in im­munol­o­gy. The tiny five-per­son com­pa­ny could grow to 15-20 peo­ple over the next few months, San­danaya­ka said.

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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