No­var­tis hands off $80M in cash to part­ner up with a top biotech play­er in the fi­bro­sis sec­tor

Nev­er un­der­es­ti­mate the pow­er of a good show­ing at a sci­en­tif­ic con­fer­ence.

In a pre­sen­ta­tion late last year, the re­searchers at Pli­ant Ther­a­peu­tics launched a se­ries of dis­cus­sions about the pre­clin­i­cal da­ta they were pulling to­geth­er around their work on their small-mol­e­cule in­te­grin in­hibitor aimed at trans­form­ing growth fac­tor be­ta, or TGF-β, a key path­way in­volved in fi­bro­sis.

And they got some se­ri­ous at­ten­tion for the work.

“We got in­ter­est from phar­ma part­ners and at the end No­var­tis ba­si­cal­ly made it,” says Pli­ant CEO Bernard Coulie.

Bernard Coulie Pli­ant

Mak­ing it, in this case, in­volves an $80 mil­lion check that No­var­tis sent over for an up­front and un­spec­i­fied eq­ui­ty stake in the com­pa­ny, along with a com­mit­ment to cov­er the R&D costs as Pli­ant takes a col­lab­o­ra­tion project on PLN-1474 through Phase I. The drug is an in­hibitor of in­te­grin αVβ1 for fi­bro­sis re­lat­ed to NASH. And the phar­ma gi­ant gets dibs on 3 oth­er pro­grams.

That’s a con­sid­er­able amount of cash for a pre­clin­i­cal deal, un­der­scor­ing the biotech’s boast that an in­dus­try leader with a big ap­petite for pipeline projects thinks it’s well-po­si­tioned to de­liv­er in a very chal­leng­ing field.

Up un­til a few weeks ago, Bio­gen had been out in front of Pli­ant’s lead pro­gram, a Phase II pro­gram for id­io­path­ic pul­monary fi­bro­sis, with a fol­low-up in the clin­ic on and pri­ma­ry scle­ros­ing cholan­gi­tis.

Much of their sci­ence is based on the lab work of UCSF’s sci­en­tif­ic co-founder Dean Shep­pard, who al­so helped in­spire a ri­val pro­gram at Stromedix, a Michael Gilman start­up that was reeled back in at Bio­gen on­ly to fail re­cent­ly.

Coulie be­lieves that the death of the Bio­gen drug was like­ly due to the an­ti­body that was be­ing used — as op­posed to the small mol­e­cule ap­proach they have. He says it’s like­ly that the an­ti­body “it­self may ac­ti­vate the im­mune sys­tem.”

But it’s hard get­ting an ac­cu­rate read at a dis­tance.

Jay Brad­ner No­var­tis

Coulie adds that the No­var­tis In­sti­tutes for Bio­Med­ical Re­search un­der Jay Brad­ner was drawn to their ap­proach in part be­cause of a close re­la­tion­ship the South San Fran­cis­co based biotech has with Stan­ford and UCSF, which pro­vide hu­man tis­sue from pa­tients with ad­vanced cas­es of the dis­ease — a core in­gre­di­ent for the kind of pre­clin­i­cal tis­sue re­search they have cen­tered on.

“That was a key fac­tor,” says the CEO. “The oth­er was that No­var­tis and oth­ers be­lieve in the in­te­grin tar­gets as a po­ten­tial tar­get for fi­bro­sis.”

With the No­var­tis cash, Pli­ant has now raised slight­ly more than $200 mil­lion to back the work of the 59 staffers at the com­pa­ny. That pro­vides some op­tions on next steps that Coulie and the ex­ec­u­tive team can con­sid­er as they ma­neu­ver clos­er to the point where they can start of­fer­ing hu­man da­ta on their work.

No­var­tis will be right by their side

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

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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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.

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.

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.

UP­DAT­ED: Es­ti­mat­ing a US price tag of $5K per course, remde­sivir is set to make bil­lions for Gilead, says key an­a­lyst

Data on remdesivir — the first drug shown to benefit Covid-19 patients in a randomized, controlled trial setting — may be murky, but its maker Gilead could reap billions from the sales of the failed Ebola therapy, according to an estimate by a prominent Wall Street analyst. However, the forecast, which is based on a $5,000-per-course US price tag, triggered the ire of one top drug price expert.

FDA de­lays de­ci­sion on No­var­tis’ po­ten­tial block­buster MS drug, wip­ing away pri­or­i­ty re­view

So much for a speedy review.

In February, Novartis announced that an application for their much-touted multiple sclerosis drug ofatumumab had been accepted and, with the drug company cashing in on one of their priority review vouchers, the agency was due for a decision by June.

But with June less than 48 hours old, Novartis announced the agency has extended their review, pushing back the timeline for approval or rejection to September. The Swiss pharma filed the application in December, meaning their new schedule will be nearly in line with the standard 10-month window period had they not used the priority voucher.

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Gilead bol­sters its case for block­buster hope­ful fil­go­tinib as FDA pon­ders its de­ci­sion

Before remdesivir soaked up the spotlight amid the coronavirus crisis, Gilead’s filgotinib was the star experimental drug tapped to rake in billions competing with other JAK inhibitors made by rivals including AbbVie and Eli Lilly.

Now, long term data on the drug — discovered by Gilead’s partners at Galapagos and posted as part of a virtual medical conference — have solidified the durability and safety of filgotinib in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, spanning data from three late-stage trials. An FDA decision on the drug is expected this year.

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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