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.

Tar­get­ing a Po­ten­tial Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of Cer­tain Can­cers with DNA Dam­age Re­sponse

Every individual’s DNA is unique, and because of this, every patient responds differently to disease and treatment. It is astonishing how four tiny building blocks of our DNA – A, T, C, G – dictate our health, disease, and how we age.

The tricky thing about DNA is that it is constantly exposed to damage by sources such as ultraviolet light, certain chemicals, toxins, and even natural biochemical processes inside our cells.¹ If ignored, DNA damage will accumulate in replicating cells, giving rise to mutations that can lead to premature aging, cancer, and other diseases.

Roivant par­lays a $450M chunk of eq­ui­ty in biotech buy­out, grab­bing a com­pu­ta­tion­al group to dri­ve dis­cov­ery work

New Roivant CEO Matt Gline has crafted an all-equity upfront deal to buy out a Boston-based biotech that has been toiling for several years now at building a supercomputing-based computational platform to design new drugs. And he’s adding it to the Erector set of science operations that are being built up to support their network of biotech subsidiaries with an eye to growing the pipeline in a play to create a new kind of pharma company.

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The fu­ture of mR­NA, J&J's vac­cine ad­comm, Mer­ck­'s $1.85B au­toim­mune bet and more

Welcome to the third installment of Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

If this report was helpful in recapping it all for you, please do share it with your colleagues.

Get ready for FDA’s third Covid-19 vaccine

On the heels of a ringing endorsement from FDA reviewers earlier in the week, J&J‘s single-dose vaccine — which proved 66% effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19, and 85% effective at stopping severe disease 28 days after administration — the advisory committee convened by the agency voted unanimously to recommend its emergency use authorization. It was “a relatively easy call,” according to one of the committee members — although that doesn’t mean they didn’t have questions. Jason Mast has the highlights from the discussion, including new information from the company, on this live blog.

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Doug Ingram (file photo)

Why not? Sarep­ta’s third Duchenne MD drug sails to ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval

Sarepta may be running into some trouble with its next-gen gene therapy approach to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But when it comes to antisense oligonucleotides, the well-trodden regulatory path is still leading straight to an accelerated approval for casimersen, now christened Amondys 45.

We just have to wait until 2024 to find out if it works.

Amondys 45’s approval was unceremonious, compared to its two older siblings. There was no controversy within the FDA over approving a drug based on a biomarker rather than clinical benefit, setting up a powerful precedent that still haunts acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock as biotech insiders weighed her potential permanent appointment; no drama like the FDA issuing a stunning rejection only to reverse its decision and hand out an OK four months later, which got more complicated after the scathing complete response letter was published; no anxious tea leaf reading or heated arguments from drug developers and patient advocates who were tired of having corticosteroids as their loved ones’ only (sometimes expensive) option.

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Fol­low biotechs go­ing pub­lic with the End­points News IPO Track­er

The Endpoints News team is continuing to track IPO filings for 2021, and we’ve designed a new tracker page for the effort.

Check it out here: Biopharma IPOs 2021 from Endpoints News

You’ll be able to find all the biotechs that have filed and priced so far this year, sortable by quarter and listed by newest first. As of the time of publishing on Feb. 25, there have already been 16 biotechs debuting on Nasdaq so far this year, with an additional four having filed their S-1 paperwork.

Steve Cutler, Icon CEO (Icon)

In the biggest CRO takeover in years, Icon doles out $12B for PRA Health Sci­ences to fo­cus on de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal work

Contract research M&A had a healthy run in recent years before recently petering out. But with the market ripe for a big buyout and the Covid-19 pandemic emphasizing the importance of decentralized trials, Wednesday saw a tectonic shift in the CRO world.

Icon, the Dublin-based CRO, will acquire PRA Health Sciences for $12 billion in a move that will shake up the highest rungs of a fragmented market. The merger would combine the 5th- and 6th-largest CROs by 2020 revenue, according to Icon, and the merger will set the newco up to be the second-largest global CRO behind only IQVIA.

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With dust set­tled on ac­tivist at­tack, Lau­rence Coop­er leaves Zio­pharm to a new board

Laurence Cooper has done his part.

In the five years since he left a tenured position at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center to become CEO of Boston-based Ziopharm, he’s steered the small-cap immunotherapy player through patient deaths in trials, clinical holds, short attacks and, most recently, an activist attack on the board.

So when the company has “fantastic news” like an IND clearance for a TCR T cell therapy program, he’s ready to pass on the baton.

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S&P ex­pects steady ero­sion in Big Phar­ma's cred­it pro­file in 2021 as new M&A deals roll in — but don't un­der­es­ti­mate their un­der­ly­ing strength

S&P Global has taken a look at the dominant forces shaping the pharma market and come to the conclusion that there will be more downgrades than upgrades in 2021 — the 8th straight year of steady decline.

But it’s not all bad news. Some things are looking up, and there’s still plenty of money to be made in an industry that enjoys a 30% to 40% profit margin, once you factor in steep R&D expenses.

Ken Frazier, Merck CEO (Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck takes a swing at the IL-2 puz­zle­box with a $1.85B play for buzzy Pan­dion and its au­toim­mune hope­fuls

When Roger Perlmutter bid farewell to Merck late last year, the drugmaker perhaps best known now for sales giant Keytruda signaled its intent to take a swing at early-stage novelty with the appointment of discovery head Dean Li. Now, Merck is signing a decent-sized check to bring an IL-2 moonshot into the fold.

Merck will shell out roughly $1.85 billion for Pandion Pharmaceuticals, a biotech hoping to gin up regulatory T cells (Tregs) to treat a range of autoimmune disorders, the drugmaker said Thursday.

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