Pfiz­er hits the gas ped­al in the mR­NA flu vac­cine de­vel­op­ment race, ink­ing a $425M in­vest­ment pact with BioN­Tech

The mR­NA spe­cial­ists at BioN­Tech have added an­oth­er deep-pock­et phar­ma gi­ant to the fold.

Pfiz­er has stepped up with a $120 mil­lion cash com­mit­ment — cov­er­ing an an un­cer­tain mix of up­front cash, eq­ui­ty and near-term re­search sup­port — to get the Ger­man biotech to fo­cus its drug plat­form on sea­son­al and pan­dem­ic flu. And there’s an­oth­er $305 mil­lion on the line in po­ten­tial mile­stone pay­outs if they can score mar­ketable prod­ucts.

Con­cep­tu­al­ly, mR­NA is sim­ple. De­vel­op­ers are adapt­ing a nat­ur­al sys­tem that dis­patch­es in­struc­tions en­cod­ed in RNA that trig­gers the pro­duc­tion of ther­a­peu­tic pro­teins. Cre­at­ing a game-chang­ing plat­form tech that can or­ches­trate this process, and the man­u­fac­tur­ing op­er­a­tions need­ed to pro­duce it, is enor­mous­ly com­plex, in­spir­ing bil­lions of dol­lars worth of in­vest­ments in BioN­Tech, Cure­Vac and Mod­er­na from big play­ers like Sanofi, Genen­tech and As­traZeneca.

And now Pfiz­er is jump­ing in, which is push­ing the to­tal in­vest­ed in BioN­tech so far well past the bil­lion-dol­lar mark.


BioN­Tech’s pipeline is con­cen­trat­ed on on­col­o­gy, with can­cer vac­cines part­nered with Genen­tech as a cen­tral fo­cus. And that’s where they see a key ad­van­tage as re­searchers work with Pfiz­er on the flu.

“Some of the un­der­ly­ing mech­a­nisms are the same,” BioN­Tech COO Sean Marett tells me in his lat­est up­date. “We’ve been us­ing some of that syn­er­gy in in­fec­tious dis­eases for awhile….You can tar­get mR­NA so that you get it to the im­mune cells of choice. We re­al­ly do see that with our on­col­o­gy process.”

One of the key ad­van­tages of mR­NA for flu vac­cines is that it can elim­i­nate the oner­ous and rel­a­tive­ly ex­pen­sive egg-based sys­tem used to or­der up huge batch­es of sea­son­al flu vac­cines as the WHO makes its best guess about which vi­ral strains are like­ly to cause the most trou­ble in the midst of flu sea­son. And the same ba­sic mR­NA ap­proach can be adapt­ed from sea­son­al flu for use against sud­den pan­demics.

“Once the back­bone is op­ti­mized for ex­pres­sion in the rel­e­vant set­ting, it’s just a ques­tion of ex­chang­ing anti­gens,” adds Marett. “In our ex­pe­ri­ence with on­col­o­gy vac­cines, it’s re­al­ly quick. You need the se­quence, the trick is that your back­bone is op­ti­mized.”

For any big play­er in vac­cines, it’s the kind of tech­nol­o­gy that could dis­rupt the en­tire vac­cines field — if it works — and this is one area of mR­NA where re­searchers feel they’re on sol­id ground in search­ing for suc­cess. Not en­gag­ing with one of the lead­ers would leave them vul­ner­a­ble to be­ing cut out of the mar­ket.

George Yancopoulos (Regeneron)

Re­gen­eron co-founder George Yan­copou­los of­fers a com­bat­ive de­fense of the po­lice at a high school com­mence­ment. It didn’t go well

Typically, the commencement speech at Yorktown Central School District in Westchester — like most high schools — is an opportunity to encourage students to face the future with confidence and hope. Regeneron president and co-founder George Yancopoulos, though, went a different route.

In a fiery speech, the outspoken billionaire defended the police against the “prejudice and bias against law enforcement” that has erupted around the country in street protests from coast to coast. And for many who attended the commencement, Yancopoulos struck the wrong note at the wrong time, especially when he combatively challenged someone for interrupting his speech with a honk for “another act of cowardness.”

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Elias Zerhouni (Photo by Vincent Isore/IP3/Getty Images)

Elias Zer­houni dis­cuss­es ‘am­a­teur hour’ in DC, the de­struc­tion of in­fec­tious dis­ease R&D and how we need to prep for the next time

Elias Zerhouni favors blunt talk, and in a recent discussion with NPR, the ex-Sanofi R&D and ex-NIH chief had some tough points to make regarding the pandemic response.

Rather than interpret them, I thought it would be best to provide snippets straight from the interview.

On the Trump administration response:

It was basically amateur hour. There is no central concept of operations for preparedness, for pandemics, period. This administration doesn’t want to or has no concept of what it takes to protect the American people and the world because it is codependent. You can’t close your borders and say, “OK, we’re going to be safe.” You’re not going to be able to do that in this world. So it’s a lack of vision, basically just a lack of understanding, of what it takes to protect the American people.

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An ex­pe­ri­enced biotech is stitched to­geth­er from transpa­cif­ic parts, with 265 staffers and a fo­cus on ‘new bi­ol­o­gy’

Over the past few years, different teams at a pair of US-based biotechs and in labs in Japan have labored to piece together a group of cancer drug programs, sharing a single corporate umbrella with research colleagues in Japan. But now their far-flung operations have been knit together into a single unit, creating a pipeline with 10 cancer drug development programs — going from early-stage right into Phase III — and a host of discovery projects managed by a collective staff of some 265 people.

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New stan­dard of care? FDA hands Pfiz­er, Mer­ck KGaA an OK for Baven­cio in blad­der can­cer

The breakthrough therapy designation Pfizer and Merck KGaA notched for Bavencio in bladder cancer has quickly paved way for a full approval.

The PD-L1 drug is now sanctioned as a first-line maintenance treatment for patients with locally advanced or metastatic urothelial carcinoma, applicable in cases where cancer hasn’t progressed after platinum-containing chemotherapy.

Petros Grivas, the principal investigator of the supporting Phase III JAVELIN Bladder 100, called the approval “one of the most significant advances in the treatment paradigm in this setting in 30 years.”

On a roll, Mer­ck blazes through a new seg­ment of the bio­mark­er trail

Merck has notched an approval for using Keytruda to treat a biomarker-based subset of first-line colorectal cancer patients with unresectable or metastatic tumors, as the pharma giant continues to find new niches for its blockbuster PD-1 star.

The OK is significant in a number of ways. Not only does it build on an accelerated approval for all tumors characterized as microsatellite instability-high (MSI-H) or mismatch repair deficient (dMMR); it also marks the first single treatment for colorectal cancer that doesn’t contain chemotherapy.

Pfiz­er shares surge on pos­i­tive im­pact of their mR­NA Covid-19 vac­cine — part­nered with BioN­Tech — in an ear­ly-stage study

Pfizer and their partners at the mRNA specialist BioNTech have published the first glimpse of biomarker data from an early-stage study spotlighting the “robust immunogenicity” triggered by their Covid-19 vaccine, which is one of the leaders in the race to vanquish the global pandemic.

Researchers selected 45 healthy volunteers 18-55 years of age for the study. They were randomized to receive 2 doses, separated by 21 days, of 10 µg, 30 µg, or 100 µg of BNT162b1, “a lipid nanoparticle-formulated, nucleoside-modified, mRNA vaccine that encodes trimerized SARS-CoV-2 spike glycoprotein RBD.” Their responses were compared against the effect of a natural, presumably protective defense offered by a regular infection.

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Sec­ond death trig­gers hold on Astel­las' $3B gene ther­a­py biotech's lead pro­gram, rais­ing fresh con­cerns about AAV

Seven months after Astellas shelled out $3 billion to acquire the gene therapy player Audentes, the biotech company’s lead program has been put on hold following the death of 2 patients taking a high dose of their treatment. And there was another serious adverse event recorded in the study as well, with a total of 3 “older” patients in the study affected.

The incidents are derailing plans to file for a near-term approval, which had been expected right about now.

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Paul Hudson, Sanofi CEO (Getty Images)

Sanofi preps an­oth­er round of lay­offs as new ex­ecs look to slim down the glob­al phar­ma in an on­go­ing re­or­ga­ni­za­tion — re­port

Sanofi is reportedly once again sharpening up the budget axe as the pharma giant prepares to chop more jobs.

Reuters reports this morning that Sanofi has its sights set on cutting 1,680 jobs in Europe, where the unions have been combating rounds of cutbacks at the Paris-based player. Sanofi itself hasn’t said anything about these cuts, as the company looks to discuss a 3-year plan with staff representatives.

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Covid-19 roundup: Vac­cines will need to beat place­bo by 50% to qual­i­fy for FDA OK; UK tri­al drops Kale­tra

The FDA will set the bar for approving a Covid-19 vaccine at 50% efficacy, the Wall Street Journal reported, meaning any successful candidate will have to reduce the risk of coronavirus disease by at least half compared to placebo.

That requirement is part of guidance that the agency is set to release later today, laying out detailed criteria for vaccine developers — some of whom are eyeing an OK by the end of the year, in line with expectations at Operation Warp Speed.

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