Cel­gene R&D vet jumps to biotech: 'It’s about short­en­ing the cy­cle'; No­var­tis ex­o­dus con­tin­ues as William Chou takes the helm at Aru­vant

Jorge DiMartino has been turning over the same question in his head since he was a kid: How does every human cell start out the same, with the same wiring, yet end up so different?

It’s a question that brought him to Berkeley and Stanford, Genentech, the upper echelons of Celgene and now, as Celgene is swallowed by Bristol-Myers Squibb, Kronos Bio. The small molecule biotech has hired DiMartino to be their CMO.

“I’m chomping at the bit,” he told Endpoints News. 

To ask about why liver or stomach cells are the way they are is really to ask about transcription: How does the cell read the code and why? Which in turn is to ask about RNA and epigenetics. When DiMartino first considered these questions, he was thinking as a kid fascinated by nature.

“It’s hard to wrap your head around,” he said.  “How do you go from a single fertilized zygote to developing multiple tissues?”

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Lessons for biotech and phar­ma from a doc­tor who chased his own cure

After being struck by a rare disease as a healthy third year medical student, David Fajgenbaum began an arduous journey chasing his own cure. Amidst the hustle of this year’s JP Morgan conference, the digital trials platform Medable partnered with Endpoints Studio to share Dr. Fajgenbaum’s story with the drug development industry.

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation between Medable CEO Dr. Michelle Longmire and Dr. Fajgenbaum, and it is full of lessons for biotech executives charged with bringing the next generation of medicines to patients.

No­var­tis gets a boost in block­buster mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis race with Roche

In the first step of what’s likely to be a long and uphill battle for the drugmaker, the FDA has accepted Novartis’s BLA submission for a new multiple sclerosis drug and given it priority review. The PDUFA date for the potential blockbuster drug is in June.

The drug, known as ofatumumab or Arzerra, has performed consistently well across late-stage trials in patients with the most common form of MS, including in head-to-head studies against Sanofi’s old blockbuster Aubagio. But, if the drug is approved, Novartis will find itself in a crosstown game of catch-up; since a 2017 approval, Roche’s Ocrevus has become the second best-selling MS drug on the market, nearly eclipsing Biogen’s Tecfidera last quarter with over a $1 billion in sales.

Coro­n­avirus out­break threat­ens short­age of 150 drugs — re­port

American patients who suffer from conditions other than Covid-19 could feel the impact of the coronavirus due to shortage of drugs — as 150 prescription drugs are now reportedly on a list of at-risk therapies. The list spans “antibiotics, generics and some branded drugs without alternatives,” Axios reported citing sources familiar with the list. The FDA declined to comment.

Although factories in China are gradually reopening, restrictions in travel and disruptions at transit hubs are still slowing down production. An Indian company that relies on active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) from China told Bloomberg last week that it’s seeing prices of commonly used drugs jump by 40% to 70%.

Tim Mayleben (file photo)

Es­pe­ri­on's goldilocks cho­les­terol fight­er wins FDA ap­proval — will its 'tra­di­tion­al' pric­ing ap­proach spur adop­tion?

It’s more effective than decades-old statins but not as good as the injectable PCSK9 — the goldilocks treatment for cholesterol-lowering, bempedoic acid, has secured FDA approval.

Its maker, Esperion Therapeutics, is betting that their pricing strategy — a planned list price of between $10 to $11 a day — will help it skirt the pushback the PCSK9 cholesterol fighters, Repatha and Praluent, got from payers for their high sticker prices.

The sky-high expectations for the pair of PCSK9 drugs that were first approved in 2015 quickly simmered — and despite a 60% price cut, coupled with data showing the therapies also significantly cut cardiovascular risk, sales have not really perked up.

Esperion is convinced that by virtue of being a cheaper oral therapy, bempedoic acid will hit that sweet spot in terms of adoption.

“We’re kind of like the old comfortable shoe,” Esperion’s chief commercial officer Mark Glickman remarked in an interview with Endpoints News ahead of the decision date. “It’s an oral product, once-daily and nontitratable — these are things that just resonate so true with patients and physicians and I think we’ve kind of forgotten about that.”

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Juergen Horn

An­i­mal health vet Juer­gen Horn makes new an­ti­body play for pets, rak­ing $15M in Se­ries A haul

Zoetis forked over $85 million in 2017 to acquire Nexvet Biopharma and its pipeline of monoclonal antibodies. Juergen Horn, Nexvet’s former chief product development officer, has now secured $15 million for his own biologic company for animals: Invetx.

Buoyed by emerging advances in gene therapies for humans, scientists have started looking at harnessing the technology for animals setting up companies such as Penn-partnered Scout Bio and George Church-founded Rejuvenate Bio. But akin to Nexvet, Invetx is working on leveraging the time-tested science of monoclonal antibodies to treat chronic diseases that afflict man’s best friend.

As coro­n­avirus out­break reach­es 'tip­ping point,' GSK lends ad­ju­vant tech to Chi­nese part­ner armed with pre­clin­i­cal vac­cine

As the coronavirus originating out of Wuhan spreads to South Korea, Italy and Iran, stoking already intense fears of a pandemic, GlaxoSmithKline has found another pair of trusted hands to place its adjuvant system. China’s Clover Biopharmaceuticals will add the adjuvant to its preclinical, protein-based vaccine candidate against SARS-CoV-2.

Clover, which is based in the inland city of Chengdu, boasts of a platform dubbed Trimer-Tag that produces covalently-trimerized fusion proteins. Its candidate, COVID-19 S-Trimer, resembles the viral spike (S)-protein found in the virus.

Deborah Dunsire

The fourth CGRP mi­graine drug is here. Time for Lund­beck to prove it's worth $2B

They may be late, but Lundbeck is now officially in the game for preventing migraine with CGRP drugs.

The FDA has OK’d eptinezumab, the prize in Lundbeck’s $2 billion acquisition of Alder. Like rival offerings from Amgen/Novartis, Eli Lilly and Teva, the antibody blocks the calcitonin gene-related peptide, which is believed to dilate blood vessels in the brain and cause pain.

It will now be sold as Vyepti. The company has yet to announce a price. Amgen and Novartis had set the wholesale acquisition cost of their pioneering Aimovig at $6,900 for a year’s supply before raising it slightly this year; Lilly and Teva had followed suit with Emgality and Ajovy.

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Tal Zaks (Moderna via YouTube)

For two decades, a new vac­cine tech­nol­o­gy has been slow­ly ap­proach­ing prime time. Now, can it stop a pan­dem­ic?

Two months before the outbreak, Moderna CMO Tal Zaks traveled from Cambridge, MA to Washington DC to meet with Anthony Fauci and the leaders of the National Institutes of Health.

For two years, Moderna had worked closely with NIH researchers to build a new kind of vaccine for MERS, one of the deadliest new viruses to emerge in the 21st century. The program was one test for a new technology designed to be faster, cheaper and more precise than the ways vaccines had been made for over a century. They had gathered evidence the technology could work in principle, and Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a longtime advocate for better epidemic preparedness, wanted to see if it, along with a couple of other approaches, could work in a worst-case scenario: A pandemic.

“[We were] trying to find a test case for how to demonstrate if our technology could rapidly prepare,” Zaks told Endpoints News.

Zaks and Fauci, of course, wouldn’t have to wait to develop a new test. By year’s end, an outbreak in China would short circuit the need for one and throw them into 24/7 work on a real-world emergency. They also weren’t the only ones with new technology who saw a chance to help in a crisis.

An ocean away, Lidia Oostvogels was still on vacation and relaxing at her mother’s house in Belgium when her Facebook started changing. It was days after Christmas and on most people’s feeds, the news that China had reported a novel virus to the World Health Organization blurred into the stream of holiday sweaters and fir trees. But on Oostvogels’s feed, full of vaccine researchers and virus experts, speculation boiled: There was a virus in China, something contained to the country, but “exotic,” “weird,” and maybe having to do with animals. Maybe a coronavirus.

Lidia Oostvogels

“I was immediately thinking like, ‘Hey, this is something that if needed, we can play a role,'” Oostvogels told Endpoints.

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Christos Kyratsous (via LinkedIn)

He built a MERS treat­ment in 6 months and then the best Ebo­la drug. Now Chris­tos Kyrat­sous turns his sights on Covid-19

TARRYTOWN, NY — In 2015, as the Ebola epidemic raged through swaths of West Africa, Kristen Pascal’s roommates sat her down on their couch and staged an intervention.

“Are you sure this is what you want to be doing with your life?” she recalls them asking her.

Special report

Pascal, a research associate for Regeneron, had been coming home at 2 am and leaving at 6 am. At one point, she didn’t see her roommate for a week. For months, that was life in Christos Kyratsous’ lab as the pair led a company-wide race to develop the first drug that could effectively treat Ebola before the outbreak ended. For Pascal, that was worth it.

“I’m ok, I don’t have Ebola,” Pascal told them. “I see that death toll rising and I can’t not do something about it.”

Last August, Regeneron learned they had succeeded: In a large trial across West Africa, their drug, REGN-EB3, was vastly more effective than the standard treatments. It was surprise news for the company, coming just 10 months into a trial they thought would take several years and a major victory in the global fight against a deadly virus that killed over 2,000 in 2019 and can carry a mortality rate of up to 90%.

For Kyratsous and Pascal, though, it brought only fleeting reprieve. Just four months after the NIH informed them REGN-EB3 worked, Kyratsous was back in his office reading the New York Times for updates on a new outbreak on another continent, and wondering alongside Pascal and senior management whether it was time to pull the trigger again.

In late January, as the death toll swelled and the first confirmed cases outside China broke double digits, they made a decision. Soon they were back on the phone with the multiple government agencies and their coronavirus partners at the University of Maryland’s Level 3 bio lab. The question was simple: Can Kyratsous and his team use a process honed over two previous outbreaks, and create a treatment before the newest epidemic ends? Or worse, if, as world health experts fear, it doesn’t vanish but becomes a recurrent virus like the flu?

“Christos likes things immediately,” Matt Frieman, Regeneron’s coronavirus collaborator at the University of Maryland, told Endpoints. “That’s what makes us good collaborators: We push each other to develop things faster and faster.”

Kristen Pascal (Regeneron)

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The first time Regeneron tried to respond to a global outbreak, it was something of a systems test, Kyratsous explains from his office at Regeneron’s Tarrytown headquarters. Kyratsous, newly promoted, has crammed it with photos of his family, sketches of viral vectors and a shark he drew for his 3-year-old son. He speaks rapidly – an idiosyncrasy his press person says has only been aggravated this afternoon by the contents of his “Regeneron Infectious Diseases”-minted espresso glass – and he gesticulates with similar fluidity, tumbling through antibodies, MERS, the novel coronavirus, Ebola-infected monkeys.

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