No­var­tis backs eye drop mak­er in $20M round, meds to fill gap left by Eylea/Lu­cen­tis

Eye-ob­sessed No­var­tis, in a syn­di­cate with oth­er in­vestors, has backed a $20 mil­lion round for Swiss biotech Oculis. The hope is to see the com­pa­ny’s ex­per­i­men­tal eye drops even­tu­al­ly snag a chunk of the mar­ket that drugs like Eylea and Lu­cen­tis have failed to cap­ture.

The 15-year-old com­pa­ny is work­ing on a top­i­cal ver­sion of the well-known steroid dex­am­etha­sone with the goal of de­liv­er­ing the drug via eye drops. The prod­uct can­di­date, which the com­pa­ny is call­ing OC-118, is be­ing de­vel­oped us­ing Oculis’ nov­el plat­form called “sol­u­bi­liz­ing nanopar­ti­cle” tech­nol­o­gy, or SNP. This tech­nol­o­gy, the com­pa­ny hopes, can boost the drug’s abil­i­ty to reach the front and the back of the eye — some­thing that pre­vi­ous drugs haven’t achieved un­less de­liv­ered via nee­dle to the eye.

De­liv­er­ing dex­am­etha­sone top­i­cal­ly could be sig­nif­i­cant for pa­tients with di­a­bet­ic mac­u­lar ede­ma (DME), the pa­tient group Oculis is first tar­get­ing. Along with a slew of oth­er symp­toms di­a­bet­ics en­dure, mac­u­lar ede­ma is one of those com­pli­ca­tions that can arise over the course of a di­a­bet­ic’s life. The con­di­tion in­volves swelling of the reti­na due to leak­ing flu­ids from blood ves­sels, and it af­fects about 7% of cur­rent di­a­bet­ics and 25% of di­a­bet­ics who have had the dis­ease for 20 years or longer. DME is al­so the lead­ing cause of blind­ness in young adults in de­vel­oped coun­tries.

Right now, there are four ap­proved drugs that can treat DME: Eylea, Lu­cen­tis, Ozur­dex, and Ilu­vien. To reach the back of the eye where the drug is need­ed, the meds have had to be for­mu­lat­ed as in­jecta­bles.

“The down­side is hav­ing a nee­dle in the eye,” Oculis’ CEO Ri­ad Sherif tells me. He al­so adds that these in­jectable drugs re­quire fre­quent trips to spe­cial­ists.

If OC-118 works, it would be the first eye drop prod­uct that pa­tients could take home and use to treat them­selves. And Sherif es­ti­mates that it could cap­ture 25-30% of the DME mar­ket.

“This is the holy grail if it works,” Sherif said. “It would mean a com­plete­ly new era of treat­ment, and it would be trans­for­ma­tive for eye care.”

OC-118 is cur­rent­ly in a Phase IIb tri­al to test for im­prove­ment in vi­su­al acu­ity and re­duc­tion of cen­tral mac­u­lar thick­ness in DME pa­tients. Oculis is al­so ad­vanc­ing OC-118 in oth­er oph­thalmic in­di­ca­tions.

The new cash from this round came from No­var­tis Ven­ture Fund, Bay City Cap­i­tal, and Piv­otal bioVen­ture Part­ners, along with ex­ist­ing in­vestors.

Sherif, who is still new in the CEO seat, came along with the fi­nanc­ing. He comes from No­var­tis Ven­ture Fund, where he was an en­tre­pre­neur-in-res­i­dence. But he tells me a No­var­tis-ap­point­ed CEO was not nec­es­sar­i­ly part of the deal.

“It was not an oblig­a­tion at all, it was more my­self be­ing re­al­ly ex­cit­ed about this tech­nol­o­gy, the med­ical need, and ex­cit­ed about what the team has been able to do,” said Sherif, who for­mer­ly served as an area pres­i­dent at glob­al eye care com­pa­ny Al­con. “It mo­ti­vat­ed me to move on to some­thing new.”

Fund­ing Oculis makes sense for No­var­tis’ ven­ture arm, as the drug­mak­er has made a point to build its eye drug pipeline and ex­per­tise in the field. The com­pa­ny has a strong in­ter­est in oph­thal­mol­o­gy, and its block­buster Eylea ri­val RTH258 has been tout­ed as a $1-bil­lion-plus drug for wet age-re­lat­ed mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion.

Oculis is re­lo­cat­ing its head­quar­ters from Ice­land to Switzer­land, al­though R&D will re­main in Ice­land.

BREAK­ING: Mer­ck makes a triple play on Covid-19: buy­ing out a vac­cine biotech, part­ner­ing on an­oth­er pro­gram and adding an an­tivi­ral to the mix

Merck is making a triple play in a sudden leap into the R&D campaign against Covid-19.

Tuesday morning the pharma giant simultaneously announced plans to buy an Austrian biotech that has been working on a preclinical vaccine candidate, added a collaboration on another vaccine with the nonprofit IAVI and inked a deal with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics on an early-stage antiviral.

The deal with IAVI covers recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus (rVSV) technology that is the basis for Merck’s successful Ebola Zaire virus vaccine. That’s going into the clinic later this year.

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The Advance Clinical leadership team: CEO Yvonne Lungershausen, Sandrien Louwaars - Director Business Development Operations, Gabriel Kremmidiotis - Chief Scientific Officer, Ben Edwards - Chief Strategy Officer

How Aus­tralia De­liv­ers Rapid Start-up and 43.5% Re­bate for Ear­ly Phase On­col­o­gy Tri­als

About Avance Clinical

Avance Clinical is an Australian owned Contract Research Organisation that has been providing high-quality clinical research services to the local and international drug development industry for 20 years. They specialise in working with biotech companies to execute Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials to deliver high-quality outcomes fit for global regulatory standards.

As oncology sponsors look internationally to speed-up trials after unprecedented COVID-19 suspensions and delays, Australia, which has led the world in minimizing the pandemic’s impact, stands out as an attractive destination for early phase trials. This in combination with the streamlined regulatory system and the financial benefits including a very favourable exchange rate and the R & D cash rebate makes Australia the perfect location for accelerating biotech clinical programs.

Andrew Hopkins, Exscientia founder and CEO (Exscientia)

Af­ter years of part­ner­ships, AI biotech Ex­sci­en­tia lands first ma­jor fi­nanc­ing round at $60M

After years racking up partnerships with biotechs and Big Pharma, the AI drug developer Exscientia has landed its first large financing round.

The UK-based company raised $60 million in a Series C round led by Novo Holdings — more than double the $26 million it garnered in a Series B 18 months ago. The round will help further the company’s expansion into the US and further what it calls, borrowing a term from the software world, its “full-stack capabilities,” i.e. its ability to develop drugs from the earliest stage to the market.

Piv­otal myas­the­nia gravis da­ta from ar­genx au­gur well for FcRn in­hibitors in de­vel­op­ment

Leading the pack of biotechs vying for a piece of the generalized myasthenia gravis (gMG) market with an FcRn inhibitor, argenx on Tuesday unveiled keenly anticipated positive late-stage data on its lead asset, bringing it one step closer to regulatory approval.

Despite steroids, immunosuppressants, acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, and Alexion’s Soliris, patients with the rare, chronic neuromuscular disorder (more than 100,000 in the United States and Europe) don’t necessarily benefit from these existing options, leaving room for the crop of FcRn inhibitors in development.

Covid-19 roundup: Janet Wood­cock steps aside — for now — as FDA drug czar; WHO hits the brakes on hy­droxy study af­ter lat­est safe­ty alarm

The biopharma industry will soon get a look at what the FDA will look like once CDER’s powerful chief Janet Woodcock retires from her post.

Long considered one of the most influential regulators in the agency, if not its single most powerful official when it counts, Woodcock is being detached to devote herself full-time to the White House’s special project to fast-forward new drugs and vaccines for the pandemic. The move comes a week after some quick reshuffling as Woodcock and CBER chief Peter Marks joined Operation Warp Speed. Initially they opted to recuse themselves from any FDA decisions on pandemic treatments and vaccines, after consumer advocates criticized the move as a clear conflict of interest in how the agency exercises oversight on new approvals.

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Af­ter de­cou­pling from Re­gen­eron, Sanofi says it’s time to sell the $13B stake picked up in the mar­riage

With Regeneron shares going for a peak price — after doubling from last fall — Sanofi is putting a $13 billion stake in their longtime partner on the auction block. And Regeneron is taking $5 billion of that action for themselves.

Sanofi — which has been decoupling from Regeneron for more than a year now — bought in big in early 2013, back when Regeneron’s stock was going for around $165 a share. Small investors flocked to the deal, buzzing about an imminent takeover. The buyout chatter wound down long ago.

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Janet Woodcock, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (AP Images)

Covid-19 roundup: Hit with new con­flict ac­cu­sa­tions, Janet Wood­cock steps out of the agen­cy's Covid-19 chain of com­mand

Two weeks ago, FDA drug chieftain Janet Woodcock was assuring a top Wall Street analyst that any vaccine approved for combating Covid-19 would have to meet high agency standards on safety and efficacy before it’s approved. But over the weekend, after she and Peter Marks took top positions with the public-private operation meant to speed a new vaccine to lightning-fast approvals — they both recused themselves from the review process after an advocacy group argued their roles close to the White House could pose a conflict of interest.

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Eric Edwards, Phlow president and CEO (PR Newswire)

BAR­DA of­fers a tiny start­up up to $812M to cre­ate a US-based drug man­u­fac­tur­er — and the CEO comes with a price goug­ing con­tro­ver­sy on his ré­sumé

BARDA has tapped a largely unknown startup to ramp up production of a list of drugs that may be at risk of running short in the US. And the deal, which comes with up to $812 million in federal funds, was inked by a CEO who found himself in the middle of an ugly price gouging controversy a few years ago.

The feds’ new partner — called Phlow — won a 4-year “base” contract of $354 million, with another $458 million that’s on the table in potential options to sustain the outfit. That would make it one of the largest awards in BARDA’s history.

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Re­searchers de­fine ex­act­ly what they saw in the first pos­i­tive remde­sivir study for Covid-19. But what's that worth to Gilead?

Remdesivir can work in fighting Covid-19, particularly for patients with less severe cases, but this is just a first step in the journey to finding combos that can do the job much better.

That’s the bottom line from Gilead’s randomized study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Analysts were quick to draw conclusions about how the big biotech could turn this into a profitable advantage — with widespread expectation of considerable pricing restraint on Gilead’s part. Anyone looking for a new mountain of cash to count as the world grapples with the pandemic is likely to come away disappointed.