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.

Norbert Bischofberger. Kronos

Backed by some of the biggest names in biotech, Nor­bert Bischof­berg­er gets his megaround for plat­form tech out of MIT

A little over a year ago when I reported on Norbert Bischofberger’s jump from the CSO job at giant Gilead to a tiny upstart called Kronos, I noted that with his connections in biotech finance, that $18 million launch round he was starting off with could just as easily have been $100 million or more.

With his first anniversary now behind him, Bischofberger has that mega-round in the bank.

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Francesco De Rubertis

Medicxi is rolling out its biggest fund ever to back Eu­rope's top 'sci­en­tists with strange ideas'

Francesco De Rubertis built Medicxi to be the kind of biotech venture player he would have liked to have known back when he was a full time scientist.

“When I was a scientist 20 years ago I would have loved Medicxi,’ the co-founder tells me. It’s the kind of place run by and for investigators, what the Medicxi partner calls “scientists with strange ideas — a platform for the drug hunter and scientific entrepreneur. That’s what I wanted when I was a scientist.”

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Af­ter a decade, Vi­iV CSO John Pot­tage says it's time to step down — and he's hand­ing the job to long­time col­league Kim Smith

ViiV Healthcare has always been something unique in the global drug industry.

Owned by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer — with GSK in the lead as majority owner — it was created 10 years ago in a time of deep turmoil for the field as something independent of the pharma giants, but with access to lots of infrastructural support on demand. While R&D at the mother ship inside GSK was souring, a razor-focused ViiV provided a rare bright spot, challenging Gilead on a lucrative front in delivering new combinations that require fewer therapies with a more easily tolerated regimen.

They kept a massive number of people alive who would otherwise have been facing a death sentence. And they made money.

And throughout, John Pottage has been the chief scientific and chief medical officer.

Until now.

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Chas­ing Roche's ag­ing block­buster fran­chise, Am­gen/Al­ler­gan roll out Avastin, Her­ceptin knock­offs at dis­count

Let the long battle for biosimilars in the cancer space begin.

Amgen has launched its Avastin and Herceptin copycats — licensed from the predecessors of Allergan — almost two years after the FDA had stamped its approval on Mvasi (bevacizumab-awwb) and three months after the Kanjinti OK (trastuzumab-anns). While the biotech had been fielding biosimilars in Europe, this marks their first foray in the US — and the first oncology biosimilars in the country.

Seer adds ex-FDA chief Mark Mc­Clel­lan to the board; Her­cules Cap­i­tal makes it of­fi­cial for new CEO Scott Bluestein

→ On the same day it announced a $17.5 million Series C, life sciences and health data company Seer unveiled that it had lured former FDA commissioner and ex-CMS administrator Mark McClellan on to its board. “Mark’s deep understanding of the health care ecosystem and visionary insights on policy reform will be crucial in informing our thinking as we work to bring our liquid biopsy and life sciences products to market,” said Seer chief and founder Omid Farokhzad in a statement.

Daniel O'Day

No­var­tis hands off 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams to the an­tivi­ral R&D mas­ters at Gilead

Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day’s new task hunting up a CSO for the company isn’t stopping the industry’s dominant antiviral player from doing pipeline deals.

The big biotech today snapped up 3 preclinical antiviral programs from pharma giant Novartis, with drugs promising to treat human rhinovirus, influenza and herpes viruses. We don’t know what the upfront is, but the back end has $291 million in milestones baked in.

Vas Narasimhan, AP Images

On a hot streak, No­var­tis ex­ecs run the odds on their two most im­por­tant PhI­II read­outs. Which is 0.01% more like­ly to suc­ceed?

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan is living in the sweet spot right now.

The numbers are running a bit better than expected, the pipeline — which he assembled as development chief — is performing and the stock popped more than 4% on Thursday as the executive team ran through their assessment of Q2 performance.

Year-to-date the stock is up 28%, so the investors will be beaming. Anyone looking for chinks in their armor — and there are plenty giving it a shot — right now focus on payer acceptance of their $2.1 million gene therapy Zolgensma, where it’s early days. And CAR-T continues to underperform, but Novartis doesn’t appear to be suffering from it.

So what could go wrong?

Actually, not much. But Tim Anderson at Wolfe pressed Narasimhan and his development chief John Tsai to pick which of two looming Phase III readouts with blockbuster implication had the better odds of success.

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On a glob­al romp, Boehringer BD team picks up its third R&D al­liance for Ju­ly — this time fo­cused on IPF with $50M up­front

Boehringer Ingelheim’s BD team is on a global deal spree. The German pharma company just wrapped its third deal in 3 weeks, going back to Korea for its latest pipeline pact — this time focused on idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

They’re handing over $50 million to get their hands on BBT-877, an ATX inhibitor from Korea’s Bridge Biotherapeutics that was on display at a science conference in Dallas recently. There’s not a whole lot of data to evaluate the prospects here.

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Servi­er scoots out of an­oth­er col­lab­o­ra­tion with Macro­Gen­ics, writ­ing off their $40M

Servier is walking out on a partnership with MacroGenics $MGNX — for the second time.

After the market closed on Wednesday MacroGenics put out word that Servier is severing a deal — inked close to 7 years ago — to collaborate on the development of flotetuzumab and other Dual-Affinity Re-Targeting (DART) drugs in its pipeline.

MacroGenics CEO Scott Koenig shrugged off the departure of Servier, which paid $20 million to kick off the alliance and $20 million to option flotetuzumab — putting a heavily back-ended $1 billion-plus in additional biobuck money on the table for the anti-CD123/CD3 bispecific and its companion therapies.