R&D, Venture

Philogen who? A low profile but pharma-connected Italian-Swiss hybrid steps out with $68M for a final push over the PhIII finish line

Philogen is one of the best connected late-stage biotechs you’ve probably never heard of. 

Founded by three brothers — the businessman and company CEO Duccio Neri and his two scientist siblings, Dario and Giovanni — way back in 1996, Philogen has been building up its expertise in armed antibodies over the past 23 years. It’s struck multiple development pacts with a whole range of pharma giants, occasionally rather casually and briefly noting them in abbreviated releases — like the three it announced in January with Novartis, J&J and Celgene, shorn of any specifics.

Dario Neri

Philogen specializes in arming antibodies, with a focus on immunocytokines — linking cytokines for targeted delivery to spur local and systemic immune responses. The Neris say those pacts with top industry players have kept the private company profitable — and largely out of the eye of IPO-focused venture groups — for the past 20 years. But today, with two in-house therapies in Phase III development, they’re stepping out with a €62 million ($68 million) raise aimed at taking the biotech over the top of late-stage trials and into the market.

“We have worked for many years on the antibody delivery of many payloads and certainly cytokines are very special for us,” Dario Neri tells me over the phone, emphasizing that the biotech has developed considerable expertise in the use of both antibodies and ligands. Dario worked in Gregory Winter’s lab in Cambridge, UK after his post-doc, then returned to ETH Zurich, where he is a professor of chemistry and applied biosciences. A co-founder and head of the science advisory board at Philogen, he anchors the biotech’s work in Switzerland, a biopharma hotbed, which is coordinated with the home base activities in Siena, Italy, south of Florence.

These immunocytokines are fusion proteins, chemically coupling the cytokine to their delivery vehicle. And some of its partners — like Pfizer — have come back to build a slate of partnered efforts.

“We have different types of collaborations,” says Dario Neri cheerfully, “some public and some not. Pfizer has signed up for a few.” Servier and Boehringer Ingelheim have also lined up for deals.

“Our model is innovating targeting,” he adds, localized at the site of disease.

Giovanni Neri

You can see that in their own solo work, tailored to some carefully defined targets. Daromun, the lead drug, combines a pair of their immunocytokines — The IL2 fusion protein Darleukin and the TNF fusion protein Fibromun — for the intralesional treatment of Stage III B and C melanoma patients who are trying to fight off progression to Stage IV, where their prospects of survival are grim. In the late-stage work, researchers are comparing the neoadjuvant use of the drug followed by surgery against surgery alone — the standard of care — for an endpoint focused on recurrence free survival, with overall survival as a secondary endpoint.

Fibromun gained an orphan drug designation in January from the FDA for soft tissue sarcoma.

Working with its partners, Philogen has built up a staff of 110 who have created an integrated R&D group working from discovery to late stage trials, with their own manufacturing wing. “We value that very much,” says Dario Neri. “We know our products best,” and by building up their own expertise they’re able to move more reliably than any company that requires a CMO for the work.

Profitable doesn’t mean earning big money — Neri puts 2018 profits at €10 million. But compared to the average pre-revenue biotech consuming tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s a whole other world. Now they’d like more of the biopharma world to take note as they close in on a goal they’ve had in sight for close to a quarter of a century.

Later, maybe, they can see if the third time is the charm for an IPO, which they tried and failed at in both 2008 — bad timing for the market — and 2011, pulling the last one after Bayer pulled out of a deal. These brothers don’t give up easily.

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