David Baltimore (Vincent Yu/AP Images)

No­bel lau­re­ate David Bal­ti­more throws his weight be­hind I/O start­up look­ing to craft off-the-shelf CAR ther­a­pies

In the in­su­lar world of biotech, names mat­ter — and no names shine brighter than those lu­mi­nar­ies with a No­bel Prize on their record. Now, a Los An­ge­les start­up work­ing at the fur­thest fron­tiers of cell ther­a­peu­tics is stand­ing on the shoul­ders of a lau­re­ate of its own and look­ing to rewrite the fight against sol­id tu­mors.

On Tues­day, Ap­pia Bio launched with $52 mil­lion in Se­ries A fi­nanc­ing led by 8VC and a plat­form fo­cused on what are called in­vari­ant nat­ur­al killer T cells (iNKT), an ex­treme­ly rare im­mune cell the biotech hopes to reengi­neer to bust ma­lig­nant tu­mors through a “best of both worlds” at­tack plan, the com­pa­ny said.

Ap­pia’s work is found­ed on sci­ence from UCLA pro­fes­sor Lili Yang along­side a man­age­ment team of Kite Phar­ma vet­er­ans and a first-time CEO all grav­i­tat­ing around one man — David Bal­ti­more, the 83-year-old No­bel lau­re­ate and pres­i­dent emer­i­tus at Cal­Tech.

Bal­ti­more’s work on hu­man virus­es earned him the prize for phys­i­ol­o­gy and med­i­cine back in 1975, and since then his labs have most­ly been in­volved in non-trans­la­tion­al bench sci­ence. But in re­cent years, his Cal­Tech re­search team has propped up a trans­la­tion­al wing fo­cus­ing on the use of AAV-based gene trans­fer for use in stem cells.

Lili Yang

Yang, a 13-year vet­er­an of Bal­ti­more’s lab who moved up from grad­u­ate re­search as­sis­tant to post­doc to lead sci­en­tist on en­gi­neered im­mu­ni­ty, moved to UCLA in 2013 as an as­sis­tant de­part­ment head in mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gy, im­munol­o­gy and mol­e­c­u­lar ge­net­ics, where she start­ed work­ing on the po­ten­tial for ther­a­peu­tic iNK­Ts in on­col­o­gy, this time us­ing lentivi­ral gene trans­fer in­stead of AAV. In Sep­tem­ber 2019, her team pub­lished in Cell Stem Cell proof of con­cept for an “off-the-shelf,” en­gi­neered iNKT pro­lif­er­at­ed in vi­vo through stem cells.

Af­ter show­ing some suc­cess in mice with­out any se­ri­ous safe­ty flags, Yang and col­lab­o­ra­tors Bal­ti­more and Pin Wang, a pro­fes­sor of chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing and ma­te­ri­als sci­ence and bio­med­ical en­gi­neer­ing at USC, saw a path to a po­ten­tial prod­uct and kick­start­ed Ap­pia last year.

The promise of an al­lo­gene­ic cell ther­a­py has been a hot area of in­vest­ment in re­cent years, but re­searchers have had a hard time show­ing that reengi­neered T cells that don’t come from pa­tients’ own bod­ies can pass the im­mune sys­tem with­out heinous side ef­fects. But with iNK­Ts, which co-ex­press NK and T cell mark­ers, the Ap­pia team thinks it can evade the graft vs. host dis­ease en­dem­ic to al­lo­gene­ic cell ther­a­pies and en­gi­neer mul­ti­ple routes of at­tack on tu­mors us­ing the in­nate and ac­tive im­mune sys­tem.

JJ Kang

Join­ing the sci­en­tif­ic brain­trust is JJ Kang, a for­mer part­ner at The Col­umn Group who re­ceived her doc­tor­ate in chem­i­cal bi­ol­o­gy at Cal­Tech be­fore a stint as pres­i­dent at Tenaya Ther­a­peu­tics from 2016 to 2018 — what she told End­points News was like “run­ning a com­pa­ny with train­ing wheels.” Bal­ti­more was in­stru­men­tal in in­tro­duc­ing Kang to the Col­umn team, and when she got the chance to head Ap­pia, she jumped.

“It’s so much about peo­ple and the way that things mesh to­geth­er,” she said. “In the aca­d­e­m­ic col­lab­o­ra­tion that led up to it, you al­ready had the founders that worked to­geth­er, and adding on the man­age­ment founders, we all kind of meshed well and it made sense to build a com­pa­ny.”

For Bal­ti­more, who helped Kang arrange the CEO role, he told End­points that de­spite her lack of ex­pe­ri­ence in im­munol­o­gy, Kang has tak­en to the plat­form and was ready to lead a biotech with big am­bi­tions.

“I think she’s in the per­fect po­si­tion to now move in­to a re­spon­si­ble man­age­r­i­al role,” Bal­ti­more said of Kang’s prepa­ra­tion for the job. “She has every oth­er form of ex­pe­ri­ence, she knows the peo­ple and the moves to get a com­pa­ny go­ing, and she’s re­al­ly de­vot­ed to the tech­nol­o­gy.”

The rest of the found­ing team is com­prised of Jeff Wiezorek, the for­mer head of cell ther­a­py de­vel­op­ment at Kite Phar­ma who will take on the CMO role, and Ed­mund Kim, Ap­pia’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer and for­mer VP of cor­po­rate de­vel­op­ment at Kite. Wiezorek ac­tu­al­ly shared a bench with Yang while at Cal­Tech — start­ing to see the bonds formed here? — while Kim is the odd man out look­ing to bring his ex­pe­ri­ence at a mar­ket­ed cell ther­a­py to bear at the fledg­ling firm.

Hav­ing that de­vel­op­ment ex­pe­ri­ence will bode well as the Ap­pia team hopes to trans­late its win­ning pre­clin­i­cal da­ta in­to a suc­cess­ful hu­man tri­al, which Kang said the com­pa­ny hopes to en­ter by late 2023. Bal­ti­more said the plat­form holds promise, but it’s still too ear­ly to say whether it will even­tu­al­ly prove ef­fec­tive.

“There’s a strong like­li­hood it will work, but you don’t know un­til you test it,” he said. “There will be sur­pris­es, there will be an­noy­ances, but I feel con­fi­dent that this is the right mo­ment to try.”

The Se­ries A was joined by Two Sig­ma Ven­tures among oth­ers, with par­tic­i­pa­tion from seed in­vestors Sher­pa Health­care Part­ners and Freeflow Ven­tures.

Biotech Half­time Re­port: Af­ter a bumpy year, is biotech ready to re­bound?

The biotech sector has come down firmly from the highs of February as negative sentiment takes hold. The sector had a major boost of optimism from the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, making investors keenly aware of the potential of biopharma R&D engines. But from early this year, clinical trial, regulatory and access setbacks have reminded investors of the sector’s inherent risks.

RBC Capital Markets recently surveyed investors to take the temperature of the market, a mix of specialists/generalists and long-only/ long-short investment strategies. Heading into the second half of the year, investors mostly see the sector as undervalued (49%), a large change from the first half of the year when only 20% rated it as undervalued. Around 41% of investors now believe that biotech will underperform the S&P500 in the second half of 2021. Despite that view, 54% plan to maintain their position in the market and 41% still plan to increase their holdings.

UP­DAT­ED: Boehringer nabs FDA's first in­ter­change­abil­i­ty des­ig­na­tion for its Hu­mi­ra com­peti­tor — but will it mat­ter?

The FDA late Friday awarded Boehringer Ingelheim the first interchangeability designation for its Humira biosimilar Cyltezo, meaning that when it launches in July 2023, pharmacists will be able to automatically substitute the Boehringer’s version for AbbVie’s mega-blockbuster without a doctor’s input.

The designation will likely give Boehringer, which first won approval for Cyltezo in 2017, the leg up on a crowded field of Humira competitors.

Bio­gen hit by ALS set­back with PhI­II fail­ure for tofersen — but fol­lows a fa­mil­iar strat­e­gy high­light­ing the pos­i­tive

Patients and analysts waiting to hear Sunday how Biogen’s SOD1-ALS drug tofersen fared in Phase III didn’t have to wait long for the top-line result they were all waiting for. The drug failed the primary endpoint on significantly improving the functional and neurologic decline of patients over 28 weeks as well as the extension period for continued observation.

In fact, there was very little difference in response.

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Reshma Kewalramani, Vertex CEO (YouTube)

Ver­tex gets much-need­ed win with ‘ex­tra­or­di­nary’ first pa­tient re­sults on po­ten­tial di­a­betes cure

Vertex said Monday that the first patient dosed with its cell therapy for type 1 diabetes saw their need for insulin injections vanish almost entirely, a key early step in the decades-long effort to develop a curative treatment for the chronic disease.

The patient, who had suffered five potentially life-threatening hypoglycemic — or low blood sugar — episodes in the year before the therapy, was injected with synthetic insulin-producing cells. After 90 days, the patient’s new cells produced insulin steadily and ramped up their insulin production after a meal like normal cells do, as measured by a standard biomarker for insulin production.

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Scott Struthers, Crinetics CEO

Cri­net­ics spins out ra­dio­phar­ma ef­forts in­to a new com­pa­ny, high­light­ing the grow­ing field­'s al­lure

Largely known for its nonpeptide small molecule research, Crinetics has been keeping its radiopharma work comparatively under wraps. But that changed Monday afternoon as the California biotech spun out a new company focused solely on the burgeoning field.

Crinetics launched Radionetics after the closing bell Monday, the company announced, seeding the new entity with $30 million raised from 5AM Ventures and Frazier Healthcare Partners. Radionetics will start with its own radiopharma-centric platform and a pipeline of 10 programs aimed at solid tumors.

Two drug­mak­ers hit with PDU­FA date de­lays from FDA amid back­log of in­spec­tions

As the FDA is weighed down with more and more pandemic responsibilities, the agency is beginning to miss PDUFA dates with more frequency too. Two different companies on Monday said they received notices that the FDA has not completed their drug reviews on time.

The review of an NDA for Avadel Pharmaceuticals’ candidate treatment for narcolepsy is not coming this month, the company said, and the review of UCB’s BLA for bimekizumab, used to treat moderate to severe plaque psoriasis, will miss its target date as well.

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Covid-19 vac­cine boost­ers earn big thumbs up, but Mod­er­na draws ire over world sup­ply; What's next for Mer­ck’s Covid pill?; The C-suite view on biotech; 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.

You may remember that at the beginning of this year, Endpoints News set a goal to go broader and deeper. We are still working towards that, and are excited to share that Beth Snyder Bulik will be joining us on Monday to cover all things pharma marketing. You can sign up for her weekly Endpoints MarketingRx newsletter in your reader profile.

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No­var­tis de­vel­op­ment chief John Tsai: 'We go deep in the new plat­form­s'

During our recent European Biopharma Summit, I talked with Novartis development chief John Tsai about his experiences over the 3-plus years he’s been at the pharma giant. You can read the transcript below or listen to the exchange in the link above.

John Carroll: I followed your career for quite some time. You’ve had more than 20 years in big pharma R&D and you’ve obviously seen quite a lot. I really was curious about what it was like for you three and a half years ago when you took over as R&D chief at Novartis. Obviously a big move, a lot of changes. You went to work for the former R&D chief of Novartis, Vas Narasimhan, who had his own track record there. So what was the biggest adjustment when you went into this position?

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Jeffrey Nau, Oyster Point Pharma CEO

FDA OKs an in­haled ver­sion of smok­ing ces­sa­tion drug Chan­tix — for a com­mon eye dis­ease

Oyster Point Pharma now has its first FDA-approved product — Tyrvaya. And the biotech has taken a unique route to get there by using an old drug with a storied past.

The New Jersey biotech announced this morning that the FDA has approved their nasal spray product for dry eye disease on Friday — the first nasal spray to be approved for the disease. The product’s active ingredient is 0.03 mg of varenicline, also known as smoking cessation aid Chantix.